Friday, April 17, 2020

Review of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Space opera, oh space opera, thy lights are so delightful. Space opera, oh space opera, thy popularity so frightful. The market shines with endless sales, bestsellers that never pale… In fact, we are literally one century into the space opera phenomenon (one-tenth of a millennium giggles the nerd). And it shows no signs of slowing. The latest star atop the Christmas tree? James S.A. Corey’s (pseudonym of author combo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) Expanse series, of which the first volume is Leviathan Wakes (2011).

Readers dropped into the action and not released until the final page turns, Leviathan Wakes begins in situ with a woman’s desperate situation. Captured by what she thinks are space pirates, she can only listen from her jail cell aboard ship as her fellow crew are tortured and killed. But when all goes silent, the woman is forced to escape her makeshift cell. What she encounters is perplexing. A distress beacon drawing a nearby ice hauler, captained by James Holden, to the scene, what he discovers is even more confusing. No time to ponder the situation, an attack occurs that sees Holden having to drastically reevaluate his situation—the polite way of saying run for his life with a handful of fellow crew. And the hunt is on. Holden desperate to survive and relate to the rest of the civilized solar system what he found, the group who attacked are just as desperate to stop him to ensure their nefarious plans can go off as planned. The implications eventually discovered to run deep, will human life in the solar system survive?

Save perhaps the details of human inhabitation of the solar system, there is little if anything else novel about Leviathan Wakes. The frontier of space, the stereotypical crew members, the space battles, the good guys and bad guys, the space mystery to uncover—Abraham and Franck play in an extremely familiar sandbox to any reader who has a bit of space opera under their belt. So what then has made Leviathan Wakes such a huge winner on the market? Beyond the familiarity (that’s a discussion for another day), the reasons seem clear. Plot is front and center, and evolves with perfect chunks of pacing that keep the action steady but reveals just the right of info to keep the reader engaged. Playing off that, the primary characters are strong 2D; the authors give them enough depth for the reader to relate, but not enough to distract from the entertainment—ahem, story (there are “vomit zombies”, after all).

And, I would argue, the universe behind story and character is described with a realism that does not overwhelm with: I am worldbuilding, hear me roar. Looking at the story, the space mystery and its political machinations are teased out in the right sequence to keep the reader wondering—and reading. And lastly, the writing is quite good. Abraham (I assume Abraham, given his experience) pulls some great similes out of his hat, exposition is tight and focused, and the human aspect—the social setup and character feels on point for the type of story being told. All in all, it’s fair to say Abraham and Franck recognize the fact that derivative material can be made engaging by putting effort into the basics, and letting the world fill itself out in entertaining ways.

Leviathan Wakes has gone on to spawn seven additional novels and several short stories in the Expanse setting. Christmas tree, O Christmas tree… That being said, Leviathan Wakes is a contained, or at least semi-contained experience. The reader need not worry they are embarking on a massive journey by cracking the cover of Leviathan Wakes. When the last page turns, there is the gratification of having completed a tasty nugget of space opera. For those so satisfied, the massive journey is available, however; a wealth of additional content is on the market, waiting to be expanded into... Ha… and ha… and ha-ha-haa, oh ha-ha-haa...

Cabin fever may be driving me crazy…

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