The Short Version: Humanity has colonized and monetized the solar system – but we have not achieved peace. A series of mysterious attacks bring the Asteroid Belt to the brink of war with Mars, a washed-up detective is trying to find a missing girl, and the crew of one small ship make a horrific discovery that will change everything.
The Review: I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve been in a mood for space recently. Sci-fi is all well and good here on Earth – but what about a story of reaching further, out into the stars? I’ve always harbored a soft spot for a good space opera, mostly out of my relentless wonder at looking up into the night sky, and Leviathan Wakes has been on my stack for a while. I was intrigued by the “author” (it’s really two authors writing together under a pseudonym) stating that the series is meant to look at a particular moment that doesn’t get a lot of attention: the moment when humanity is opened to the stars. Very often there are close-to-Earth sci-fi stories and stories of a galactic empire (human or otherwise) – but the moment of the shift is rather rare by comparison. And so I dove in.
As with any series opener, this book has some kinks to work out. It takes a little time to figure out what, exactly, the plot is going to be – it seems, in the early going, like it’s going to just be a geo-political struggle between the citizens of the asteroid belt and Mars and Earth crossed with a booze-soaked detective story… but then it takes a dramatic (and horrifying) shift into something altogether larger and stranger. It’s just that that shift takes a little while to arrive, even as its being telegraphed in the approaching distance. We know that there’s some weird stuff going on and Corey builds it almost past the breaking point: there comes a moment in the novel when I thought “alright already, let’s get on with things.”
Thankfully, things did get going shortly thereafter. The short lull of the middle of the novel is redeemed by a go-for-broke, gangbusters final act that includes but is not limited to: vomit zombies, revelations about a moon of Saturn (but not the one you’re expecting), political maneuvering, and good old-fashioned heroism. One of the coolest things about the novel is almost lost in all the localized excitement: that we are not alone in the universe.
Corey’s picture of the middle-future, a time when humanity has made it out into the solar system and made it a home, feels terrifically real. There isn’t an over-reliance on science but there’s enough to assuage any questions your inner Neil deGrasse Tyson might have about orbital velocity, gravity (specifically the difference between growing up on Earth or in less-than-1g), and space travel while still retaining some of the magic and wonder of a novel, a space in which the author is allowed to say “and this is how it is” and we just go with it. It was fascinating to see the way humanity has evolved in this novel – the way that those born and raised in the Belt are, fundamentally, becoming different from those on Mars, just as those on Mars are different from those on Earth. The same racial tensions that divide us today are present here but now skin color has nothing to do with it: it’s where you’re from in the solar system.
And, although it veers too far into the tropes of a washed-up cop turned detective, Miller’s story is a compelling and pulpy one. We’re introduced, in an opening chapter in George R. R. Martin fashion (not surprisingly, one of the co-authors is Martin’s assistant), to a one-off character: the missing girl who Miller tries to find. And having his chapters interspersed with those of Holden helps keep anything from settling down too much, even when the plot drags a bit.
Speaking of Holden: he and his ragtag crew are simultaneously an embrace of cliché (think of any sci-fi show not called Star Trek and I’ll bet their crew has some similarities to Holden’s) and a refreshing take on it as well. They are relatable, all of them. Holden’s struggles to lead and to do what’s right, the interplay between all of them, the way that Miller both does and does not fit – it makes them all feel human and understandable, which is of course tremendously important in the midst of an alien universe.
Finally, without going into any spoilers, the ending is what pushes this book into the sort of series that makes me want to go out and pick up the next book, immediately. (Which I did, although I haven’t started reading it yet – I’m forcing myself to take it slow.) It achieves that pivot, towards the stars, and now that all the players are on the board and understood, I’m excited to see what Corey does with them. It took a little while to get things set up but the investment was absolutely worth it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Although it has no problem embracing tropes and clichés, Leviathan Wakes is exactly what I wanted and exactly what was promised: a kick-ass space adventure. There’s plenty of universe-building and the gumshoe plot relies a little too heavily on its noir roots, both of which contribute to a lull in the pacing towards the middle, but once the logistics are out of the way, the novel takes off like an Epstein Drive headed into the stars. I can’t wait to see what Holden and the crew of the Rocinante get up to next.