This book was really good. Seeing as it’s been a considerable while since I read a pure space opera, I did have a few misgivings, but Leviathan Wakes dispensed with enough of the archetypal space opera tropes that can make it an esoteric and insular subgenre of science fiction – while retaining enough to make it engaging and give a point to the book taking place in outer space as it is.
That said, the universe in which Leviathan Wakes takes place in – The Expanse, being the title of the series this book is the inaugural member of – is intriguing. 200 years in the future, Humanity has colonised the Solar System; the “inner planets” of Earth and Mars are distinctly separate from the outer colonies in the Asteroid Belt – Belters – and this difference is not solely based on a different culture but, as a result of reduced gravity on Stations in the Belt, a profound physiological difference that sets Belters and those from the inner planets apart – Belters have larger heads and elongated limbs as a direct result of their inhabitation of low-gravity Stations. There’s a refreshing sense of limitation, too – Earth may have reached to the Solar System, but despite all the technology the stars remain elusive and mysterious. This sense of confinement (to one Solar System with one species, though the monolithic societal structuring ends there) focuses the story and the universe. The cultural differences between Belters and inner planet citizens, and even within the inner planets themselves are as believable in the futuristic world of Leviathan Wakes as similar tensions would be today – it seems that even as humanity reaches across the Solar System, notions of racial and cultural superiority and elitism don’t remain confined to Earth. There’s no kooky alien names to memorise, with a convoluted and contrived backstory, and there’s no pretentious human “unity” government that magically ties the species under one umbrella. The politics of the Expanse universe are identifiable in real-world Earth politics, and the tensions between the factions, and the machinations in between are well-crafted, but not overbearing. There’s certainly a mix of conflicting interests behind the schemes that threatens to poke through into the main narrative.
Leviathan Wakes is frequently and simplistically described as Game of Thrones in space. I’d agree; like Game of Thrones, Leviathan Wakes, while taking place in this epic universe, remains a “human drama” at its core. The tension between the characters is not derived from the otherworldly surroundings or mythical technologies but from circumstances that are as believable inside that universe as they are in the time the contemporary reader is experiencing. Even when the story impacts that universe in monumental ways, the way in which the characters deal with those situations is portrayed in a way the reader can relate to in 2016. This is most satisfying for me. The reader can identify that Miller is a washed-up cop past his prime, and how his last case becomes all-consuming; likewise, we acknowledge Holden’s idealism and self-confessed righteousness, even if it’s misplaced. These characters, and the characters they relate to, are very well rounded in Leviathan Wakes. They make mistakes. They have histories and relationships. They’re not perfect. And they’re all likeable, and have personality. Coupled with the ambitious-but-well-realised setting, these characters bombing around was exciting to read.
The book is structured quite simply; each chapter alternates between the point of view of Miller and Holden, the book’s two main protagonists. Over the course of the novel these two characters begin a solar system apart, with two completely contrasting situations until, quite satisfyingly, they clash together and then the chapter structure transitions to partly recounting events from the alternate perspective and pushing the plot forward. There’s a definite escalation of events and obstacles as the journey progresses, but it never feels grandiose or pompous. There’s a subtle, dark humour that kept me engaged. The prose, too, is not unchallenging and guides the reader along this journey across the Solar System ably. I remarked in a previous review that “readable” prose is considered extremely difficult to achieve, but Leviathan Wakes does so, despite a heavy introduction to the universe that I’ve no doubt will be necessary as I delve further into the series. The plot is not incredibly challenging, but it’s engaging, energetic and filled with action and conflict – believably so, too. Where it lacks any deep exploration of the universe or the concepts contained, I’m sure the remainder of the series will fill the gap. Leviathan Wakes stands well on it’s own but certain whetted my appetite to read on!
Even if “science fiction” or “space opera” turns you right off a book in an instant, I’d still suggest Leviathan Wakes is worth a read. I found it engaging and exciting, and a refreshing take on the (sub)genre. Definitely worth getting your teeth into!
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