Leviathan Wakes, the First of Many Space Operas for the Year

This summer I read the sci-fi novel Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey — actually a pseudonym for writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I’ll admit that I haven’t read much science fiction besides Dune. I adore Dune because it conjures a bigger universe with its own cultures and problems — and it doesn’t include a host of unbelievable aliens, either. (I have nothing against aliens; they just have to be done realistically.) So when I heard that Leviathan Wakes was a space opera of an imagined future of our solar system, I couldn’t resist it.

The universe in this book is big and rickety and ugly, but that’s what makes it so unique. The Epstein drive has made it possible to travel much faster, though still only at a fraction of lightspeed. Humans haven’t been able to leave the solar system, but they’ve colonized their own corner of space, including Mars and asteroids in the Belt. Ships are bulky, built to get the job done rather than impress with design. To prepare for the extreme crush of gravity that occurs with high-g acceleration, humans down drugs before the ships speed up.

The book bounces back and forth between two points of view: that of Belter Miller, a divorced detective with a drinking problem, and that of James Holden, XO of an ice hauler who investigates a mysterious derelict ship. While Miller investigates the disappearance of a young woman, Holden finds himself on the run after most of his crew dies in a shocking attack. Their paths eventually join as they uncover a conspiracy piece by piece.

The plot is full of twists that I won’t give away here. The first half of the novel was immensely enjoyable as I got to know the characters and their dirty ways of life. There’s tension between the inner planet types — people from Earth and Mars — and the Belters, who live grittier, less privileged lives on far-flung asteroids.

But somewhere along the way, cliches started ruining things for me. The plot never dares to be original, but at least detailed characterization and excellent world-building make up for that in the beginning. Once Holden and Miller meet, Holden’s honest heroism starts seeming naive — even stupid. He gives away information before he knows the big picture, believing that the public has a right to know. (Wikileaks, anyone?) This information could spark a misguided war, but Holden doesn’t think through those sorts of repercussions before he broadcasts.

Meanwhile, Miller becomes a slouchy depressive who apparently wears a ridiculous hat. His quick thinking and disregard for the rules leads him to make smart, brutal decisions — the sort that piss off good-guy Holden. I think I preferred Holden’s idealism, but only because something about Miller started to annoy me. When Holden and Miller face off, I had no idea who I supported. I didn’t even know if I cared anymore.

Uncovering the conspiracy is what kept me reading. Just when I thought I had a handle on what was going on, the book threw me — and Miller and Holden and Holden’s crew — another surprise. Without giving away anything specific — but stop reading if you don’t want any hints! — Miller becomes something of a hero in the end, but I barely bought it. His act of heroism felt too much like him giving up on life for me to wear myself out applauding him.

Bottom line… Leviathan Wakes is a rip-roaring read for its realistic world-building. Action scenes in this book are thrilling, whether they’re about a zero-g escape, hand-to-hand combat or ships trying to take each other down. In fact, those scenes are where the book’s prose really shines, in my opinion.

But when it comes to caring about the characters, the book unravels quickly. The begrudging respect Holden and Miller eventually muster for each other inspires some pretty cheesy lines. At the end, I was much more interested in solving the mysteries of the book than in seeing what happened to the characters.

A Season of Space Operas!

Reading Leviathan Wakes has inspired me to explore more space operas. This autumn I plan to read at least two: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds and Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. (I’ve already started the former, which I love so far.) Although I enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, I’m hoping I’ll find another space opera that suits me better. If anyone has other suggestions, let me know!

And despite Leviathan Wakes’ flaws, I’m definitely going to read the next in the series, Caliban’s War.

— Ashley

15 thoughts on “Leviathan Wakes, the First of Many Space Operas for the Year”

  1. It’s been awhile since I read any space operas (I’m more into Urban fantasy right now). But I used to really enjoy Peter F. Hamilton’s books. He is primarily known for writing space operas, so maybe he has one that you could get into

  2. I JUST read about this somewhere else… Where the heck was it… Now I’m even more interested! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yeah, I first heard about it through the Sword and Laser book club. I thought the characterization in the book was patchy, but sci-fi isn’t really known for that anyway. The story is pretty gripping stuff if you’re into sci-fi books!

  3. Nice review! Be sure you let us know what you think of the other books on your “to-read” list. I’m a big fan of Consider Phlebas (along with The Player Of Games, Use Of Weapons, and Matter… I think Banks is a great author.) I also just bought Revalation Space though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

    1. Thanks! I’m sure I’ll end up writing reviews of the other books as I finish them too. It’s good to hear you like Consider Phlebas. I’ve heard great things about Banks being one of the sci-fi authors who creates characters readers actually care about, which is important to me in a book. Let me know if you like Revelation Space, too! So far I’m enjoying it.

  4. Zahn’s Quadrail series is very good and retro feel like Leviathan Wakes has. Hamilton, as mentioned, is very good. I’ve also been told to check out Starship by Mike Resnick from PYR. And Glen Cook has a couple space operas from Night Shade (Passage To Arms and a trilogy). I also have a series out which got B&N Book Club’s Year’s Best mention called Saga of Davi Rhii if you like old fashioned Star Wars-style yarns. Alex Cavanaugh’s Cessa series are also very good reads.

    1. I agree that Leviathan Wakes has a retro feel; I’ve heard people say it’s a throwback to old-fashioned space operas. If the Zahn’s Quadrail series is similar, I’m eager to check it out! I also just looked at your website and am really enjoying it. Your Saga of Davi Rhii series sounds like an exciting read, I’m putting it on my reading list for this fall! It sounds like the type of series I’d like to write someday. =)

      Thanks for all the lovely recommendations!

  5. I highly recommend John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I’ve only read the first book in that series, but I loved it and have heard great things about the subsequent books. It’s also an amazingly fast read. I’m about 50 pages into Revelation Space right now and am really enjoying it as well. I look forward to your review of it!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, Revelation Space is really interesting so far, I’m glad you’re enjoying it, too. Thanks for the recommendation of Old Man’s War, I just looked it up and it sounds amazing. I like that it’s in first-person, too — that helps me feel something for the characters, to be inside their heads. I’m adding the book to my reading list now!

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