Monday, 20 June 2011

'Leviathan Wakes' - James S.A. Corey

Several other reviews have heaped praise on Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The promising blurb made me want to find out if this book might be of similar calibre to Alistair Reynolds.

In Leviathan Wakes, humanity has spread across the solar system. When Jim Holden, journeying in his ice miner, stumbles across a deserted ship in the middle of nowhere, Jim and his crew uncover a secret that threatens to bring destruction by pitting opposing human factions against one another. The mining vessel is attacked by stealth ships, and Holden has to uncover the motive for the aggression to stop a war that could mean the death of billions.

Human civilisation has not yet sprawled beyond the edge of the solar system. Three factions have emerged, competing for financial and martial power: those residing on Mars, the first planet to be colonised, have a smaller fleet but hold the technological advantage over those on Earth. The Belters occupy regions of plentiful resources so have great potential wealth, and due to growing up in low gravity environments, are physically very tall.

Jim Holden, executive officer on board the ice hauler Canterbury, has served five years in Earth’s navy. When the Canterbury encounters an emergency signal from the Callisto it is required by law to stop and render assistance in any way it can. Holden, of course, is assigned to lead the small shuttle team that investigates, and is warned by his captains to retreat at the first sign of danger.

Holden and his crew immediately realise that all is not normal aboard the Callisto: a gaping hole in the side of the ship is evidence that someone used breaching charges to infiltrate the hull. They begin to explore but are soon contacted by the Canterbury and warned by the captain that they’ve spotted something weird. Unless Holden and his team want to miss their ride home, they must return to the Canterbury immediately. The investigation is aborted and Holden grabs the Callisto’s emergency transponder, found lying on the deck.

As the team races back, the captain contacts them again. A ship nearby, suspected to be a pirate vessel, has uncloaked and is firing missiles to disable the Canterbury. Holden can do nothing but watch helplessly as the Canterbury is not just incapacitated, but entirely obliterated.

Leviathan Wakes is written from the point of view of two characters. Alongside Holden’s viewpoint, the reader follows Detective Miller, a Belter born and raised on Ceres station. Miller, struggling with drink and personal problems, has been assigned a non-Belter partner. Havelock is a good cop, but he does not fit in, struggling to understand the hand gestures or dialect spoken by the less-educated Belters. The grim monotony of working on Ceres with Havelock is broken when their boss assigns them a job outside their usual duties and professional expertise: to find the daughter of a rich family, kidnapped after she went rogue, fleeing and leaving her family and money behind.

When Miller and Havelock are drinking in a cop bar, phones begin going off all around them. The chief is making an announcement, and it’s dire news: Jim Holden has just broadcast to anyone listening that his ship was destroyed and most of his crew killed. Moreover, the personnel of another ship are missing, and on board that ship a transmitter of Mars manufacture was found. This event could not be closer to a declaration of war from Mars without an outright invasion of the Belters. Old tensions spring to life, and everyone is suspicious of everyone else. Miller is forced to work crowd control instead of hunting for the missing girl, but there’s something about her that makes him continue to look for her, ignoring the order to let it go.

For Holden and his crew, things go from bad to worse. Abandoned by their company, they find themselves being handed over to Mars. A flagship from the Mars navy is on its way, but they soon discover that other, unknown ships, are also on an intercept course. Who thinks they can challenge the might of a flagship? And why would Mars have attacked the Callisto and the Canterbury?

Detective Miller is my favourite character. Corey has done a very good job in portraying the tortured detective. Miller becomes obsessed with the missing girl and she is the catalyst that brings about a few realisations about himself, and I really felt for him when it dawned on him what he had become. He is a fighter, though, and the reader never doubts that he would do the right thing.

I was less impressed with the creation of Jim Holden and I hope that his character develops in the second book. He is described as a righteous person and his crew adore him, but the reader is never really shown why. In my mind this evokes David Weber’s Honour Harrington: the reader is repeatedly told how amazing she is, but in the book her actions pale in comparison to the portrayal of her. Jim Holden is not quite that bad, but he does seem naïve and far less interesting than Detective Miller.

The supporting characters are strong. Especially so Holden’s surviving crew members, who are all compelling and fun. Of these, my favourite is Amos, an engineer from Earth. He’s a big brute of a man with army experience, and he is a lot more subtle than you might expect from a character who first appears to be a simple bruiser.

I detest waiting for the next book in a series, but alas, what choice do us readers have? I enjoyed Leviathan Wakes. It is a somewhat low-tech space opera that takes place within the confines of one solar system, with faster-than-light-travel not yet invented. This is not a problem, but readers seeking a world similar to those created by Alistair Reynolds may not find what they seek. There’s no mind-boggling technology or genetically altered humans here. Fortunately, the action and plot are of comparable quality to Reynolds. Leviathan Wakes was a real page-turner and I just had to find out what the hell was going on. There are enough plot twists to maintain interest, but not too many that they cause confusion.

Leviathan Wakes is a strong novel from James S. A. Corey, and fans of space opera science fiction will surely like it.

Leviathan Wakes weighs in at 576 pages and is published by Orbit.

Verdict: read


edited by Joe Dawson at 4sf.co

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