REVIEW: Leviathan Wakes

James S.A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1)
science fiction
june 15, 2011 (Kindle Edition)

Blurb via Goodreads:

Welcome to the future. Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer, Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

I’d had my eye on this one for quite some time before finally opening it up here recently. Earlier this year I read a wonderful scifi book by John Scalzi, Old Man’s War, which had a very engaging human element to it. After awaiting reviews from other readers, I finally felt prompted to try Leviathan Wakes on the recommendation from a friend that it, too, had that engaging human element to it. Unfortunately I found myself not quite as engaged as I’d like to have been and had trouble connecting with almost all of the book. But one thing kept me going and made me interested enough in the second in this series.

 Leviathan Wakes is unlike any scifi I’ve read prior in that it lacks that wondrous quality that comes with most other recognizable and, well, commercial scifi such as Star Trek. There’s no smooth, svelte futuristic setting where everything is pristine. Technology isn’t really of the advanced kind that’s launched humanity into a scientific utopia. People haven’t become interested in the furthering of humane kindness and other such ideals. Not that all scifi that shows society that has achieved a higher level of living is without turmoil, grief and despair, it’s just that Leviathan Wakes is full of almost nothing but despair.

Yes, people have colonized planets like Mars and our race has reached across the galaxy and built enormous space stations, but it’s not an easy future by far. No one is really for the other. Mars and Earth are in some kind of superiority complex race. Stations floating in space are full of gangs vying for ultimate rule and the general quality of life is sparse (homes referred to often as holes barely big enough to stand in – think Korbe Dallas’ miniscule apartment in The Fifth Element, but barely even that cheerful or cool). Riots are frequent, the station security agents are often told to overlook serious cases and to top it off most of the main characters are about as uplifting as a a carrot with no ranch to dip it in. That being said, it’s clearly the atmosphere the book is going for. This, admittedly, was hard for me to get past at first.

With the characters somewhat morose outlook on life and the horrific situations they all find themselves in, I was kind of looking to the worldbuilding next. Action sequences were anticlimactic in many chapters (not to mention I had a hard time visualizing something the authors obviously tried to be descriptive with), there’s a need to repeatedly convey the negative effect of g-forces on the human body (after a few chapters if I never heard the explanation again I’d have happily eaten the rest of this book up), and the science behind the authors’ version of space travel, while very realistic to me, weighed the book down with its apparent clumsiness and slowness.

For all that, something kept me reading. I even wondered to myself whey I didn’t let this one go into the pile of readerly castoffs. It was the plot. This book has a really solid one. While the execution of it was about 75% too redundant/slow/despairing for me, I was eventually hooked by the plot. I wanted almost desperately by some point to know too what had happened to Julie Mao, the “poor little rich girl” whose parents want her back. So they have station security put Detective Miller on the case, the male main character that becomes in some ways this book’s own “leviathan waking”. Just in case I still haven’t driven home just how screwed up life is in this future, here’s a quote from Miller on Julie after he investigates her a little:

Attacked, the man had said. There was nothing about it in her record. Might have been a mugging. Might have been something worse. Miller knew lots of victims, and he put them into three categories. First there were the ones who pretended nothing had happened, or that whatever it was didn’t really matter. That was well over half the people he talked to. Then there were the professionals, people who took their vicitimization as permission to act out in any way they saw fit. That ate most of the rest.


Maybe 5 percent, maybe less, were the ones who sucked it up, learned the lesson, and moved on. The Julies. The good ones.


–pg. 129-130 (Kindle version)

OK, just so we’re clear, the “good victims” suck it up in Miller’s world. They get raped/beaten/trafficked/harassed, maybe? Eh, if they sucked it up, learned to defend themselves and looked at it as a lesson learned, they were A-OK with him. Good to know about you, Miller. Bet that 5% makes anyone’s job easier. This made it even harder for me to appreciate his character in any way and he makes up a sizable chunk of the book. At some point I must have learned how defend my sensibilities against his incredibly assholish outlook, sucked it up and learned how to enjoy the book a little. Though, it must be said, Miller is just batshit crazysauce.

But get past it I must have because as we’re slowly (and  I cannot emphasise how slowly) clued into the mystery of Julie’s disappearance, we begin to see things on a universally fucked up political scale. The more the plot reveals, the more in unravels until you finally see the full horror of what’s going on. It in some ways was worth waiting for. I’m not into scifi horror at all, but it seems the most easily used of all scifi, I dunno how to put it – tactics?- to write or film science fiction subjects. It makes sense because space and a future in it are obviously so far beyond our understanding in reality that it’s probably easier at this point to imagine all kinds of horrific scenarios. And when I say easy I don’t mean it was easy for the authors’ to execute their ideas in this book, I just mean that it makes sense horror makes its way so often into our imaginings of life in space. This is where the book began to truly grab me, much to my surprise. The pure evil behind it all, the descriptions of what happens to millions of people, it was quite a well done, chilling atmosphere. I continued to lament the slow pace that is a huge unwanted consistency in the book, but I was thankful that something hooked me anyway.

Besides Julie and Miller, other characters of note were Captain Jim Holden (he was made captain due to circumstances, right? Arg, finding that again would be a needle in a haystack thing.) and his small crew that survive their own ordeal, intertwined with that of Julie and Miller. As a whole, Jim and Miller are what make up the 3rd person alternating points-of-view in the book, and with them and the descriptions of and dialogue from the others, you’d probably expect a wide variety of personalities. That was my other problem (I’ve lost count of the problems) with them, though – none of them came across much differently to me than the next. I mean, each has traits and while some effort at characterization is definitely made, they honestly could’ve almost been the same person to me. The few female characters are either victims that were able to brush off their abuse and therefore mucho kewl for doing so to the delusional and crazy main male character (who ends up being a noble semi-savior for his sacrifices) or the love interest of another who, while insanely smart and, let’s call it like it is, much smarter than said male love interest (to which he admits), is still only really his love interest in this book’s grand scheme of things. The characterization wasn’t particularly stellar to say the least. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care for any of the characters or had anyone to root for particularly, it was that they were flat, cardboard-ish or frustratingly relegated to obvious insignificance.

So why, again, did I enjoy this book at all? Let’s review: the plot was sound. It was interesting enough for me to try out book two, even, which awaits me in my Kindle line-up. There were a few moments of lip up-tilting, for example a quote from Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer,” (pg. 254, Kindle version). I don’t know, so much of this book disappointed, but I found myself eventually drawn into the authors’ world, a bleak existence for most with a huge wake-up call in the horror that was coming for them from millions of years ago. What’s the appeal in that? It was well done. It has a haunting atmosphere with it that was very tangible. I like that. I hope the rest of the elements that make up a good book follow suit in book 2.

Rating: Three Scoops

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  1. Sweetie, I’m so glad you slugged through it and found something to enjoy! I obviously liked it a lot more than you did. You hit the nail on the head with Miller he is batshit crazy! But I liked the nourish detective atmosphere that his character brought to the book. Holden? Sigh… I don’t have enough room to go into him lol. I do know that by the end of this story I was hooked.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy Calibans War. I’m waiting impatiently for Abbasons Gate.

    • Holden really was an interesting character. Kind of that last stand for goodness and all. And boy did he keep managing to step into all the wrong situations lol, but manage to come out well enough on top. Another thing that hooked me for book two, though was that book’s sample at the end of Leviathan. I’m so curious about the results of all that creepy-as-hell experimentation. I can’t look away.

  2. I know! It’s like watching a train wreck, isn’t it? I tell you, I got so hooked on the edgy creepy stuff that goes on in this series and the whole mystery about Julie, and Miller’s dark, obsessive narrative kept me reading. Holden… he’s a trip. He provides the space adventure, along with the crew, but to me he’s the eternal ideologist who keeps stepping on it and somehow lives another day to step on it again. LOL! I liked Holden.

    I hope you like the new characters introduced in Caliban’s War. I liked one of them, a lot! Let’s see if we agree.

  3. PS: Going back to the Old Man’s War series, are you going to read The Ghost Brigades? It’s the second book and it’s a good one follow-up book to Old Man’s War. Scalzi’s book are fast, fast reads. I’m really enjoying his style.

    • Hils, I just finished The Ghost Brigades the other day! It was pretty good! I can see why many feel it’s not as good as Old Man’s War, thought it was slow at first myself, but it got better.

      As for Caliban’s War, I just got going on that one and so far so good. I’m able to get into it much better than I did the first book. I’ll keep an eye on those new characters. So far that female lieutenant whose name I can’t remember ATM seems interesting. Holden is even growing on me! I got a very distinct Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly vibe from him this time! This is perfectly fine with me lol.

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