James S.A. Corey
When I finally purchased The Dragon’s Path on my e-reader of choice I was pleasantly surprised (that is an egregious understatement) to note that it included a free advance copy of Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Advance advance buzz, the bare whisperings often heard by those of us who stalk books on the web, was that this was going to be old school type space opera. Of course the truth is even better because not only is this old school space opera but it is also a little bit hardboiled detective fiction. Believe it or not but for this reader things only got better from there.
So there is a rather short list of things that will win me, as a reader, quickly to your side. Now pardon me but I’m going to veer into minor spoiler territory (the following section appears in the prologue so it is very very minor) in order illustrate one of those things:
The engineering deck was huge, vaulted like a cathedral. The fusion reactor dominated the central space. Something was wrong with it. Where she expected to see readouts, shielding and monitors, a layer of something like mud seemed to flow over the reactor core. Slowly, Julie floated toward it, one hand still on the ladder. The strange smell grew overpowering.
The mud caked around the reactor had structure to it like nothing she’d seen before. Tubes ran through it like veins or airways. Parts of it pulsed. Not mud, then.
An outcropping of the thing shifted toward her. Compared to the whole, it seemed no larger than a toe, a little finger. It was Captain Darren’s head.
“Help me,” it said.
Whenever you inject horror into a science fiction type story I’m sold. Blame Ridley Scott and H. R. Giger if you will but ever since I floated along with Ripley aboard the Nostromo I’ve craved more of the same sort of haunted house stories in space. From the likes of Event Horizon to Pandorum to the 10th Doctor’s Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit I get real excited whenever elements of horror and dread creep into my science fiction. Now, horror isn’t the central focus of Leviathan Wakes but it’s an excellent way to kick off the story, and that prologue really makes you sit up and take notice.
Abraham and Franck back off the horror for the majority of the novel moving from the prologue to the first out our two main narrators. Jim Holden is the XO on a ice mining vessel working the Belt when his crew inadvertently stumble across the derelict Scopuli (another one of those things I always love in sci-fi) they find themselves under attack and in possession of a potentially deadly secret. Holden is an upright guy, always trying to do the right thing even if he doesn’t always examine what the consequences of that right thing might be. Holden’s actions have the effect of forcing the pre-existing tensions between Earth, Mars and the Belt to near the breaking point.
That tension is one of the more fascinating aspects of Leviathan Wakes. It plays an important role in the story and serves to create a realistic atmosphere of danger. The Belt/Earth/Mars tension is more directly dealt with from Detective Miller’s point of view. Miller who, at the start of the novel, works on Ceres, a port carved out of an asteroid, as a detective. He is partnered with an Earth born man who is the constant but of jokes and ire from citizen and co-worker alike. Abraham and Franck do a solid job of setting up the tension early introducing the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), somewhat radical freedom fighters who want to break away from hegemony of Earth and Mars. Of course, things really come to a head once Holden broadcasts his secret to everyone and events begin to snowball from there.
Miller, is classic noir detective all the way. Divorced and frequently taking refuge in a bottle he is a man that has seen the worst of what his brethren have to offer and is willing to offer justice by just about any means necessary; even if his soul is stained in the process. Harsh and uncompromising Miller’s violent nature and cynical attitude serve to contrast Holden’s more diplomatic dealings and righteous tendencies.
While I was sad to see that the horrific scene offered up in the Prologue was placed on the back-burner (though never out of my mind) the pacing of the novel managed to keep my disappointment in check. The chapter’s are split, alternating between Holden and Miller. The pacing employs a serial like approach with short chapters that almost always end on a slight cliffhanger. Things really ratchet into high gear once Miller and Holden meet up and we are treated with answers to many of the questions asked early in the novel. It is at this point that elements of horror begin to creep back in and the very noir-like tendency toward cynicism (especially with regards to how people treat one another) really comes to the fore. This sequence of the novel was by far my favorite and really blends together all the disparate aspects, from intrigue to horror to action, of the novel.
Leviathan Wakes is easy to peg as a space opera novel. In truth doing so does it a disservice. It isn’t that the label doesn’t fit but only that it serves to deprive the novel of all the other great influences that sparkle throughout its narrative. It’s better to say that Leviathan Wakes isn’t just space opera. Leviathan Wakes is also a solid detective story, an intriguing thriller, and chilling tale of horror. This is also the beginning of a new series, The Expanse. While the novel is relatively self-contained the ending is left open a way that states, with some authority (and not a little dread), that this is just the beginning. I have no idea when the next novel is expected save that it isn’t soon enough.