Joel's Reviews > Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
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's review
Sep 16, 11

bookshelves: 2011, 52-in-2011, book-club, wssfbc
Read from September 01 to 15, 2011

I complained in my review of Chasm City that the gee-whiz mechanics of space opera can't really sustain a 600-page narrative. It turns out I was perhaps incorrect: most of the lengthy examples I've sampled in the sub-genre (Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks) are of the "dark and gritty" variety, grim, nihilistic visions of the future starring amoral asshole protagonists who are impossible to sympathize with. Even with a bunch of cool ideas on display, spending 700 pages in these books is exhausting. Inevitably, I like them for about 400 pages and then I just... get tired.

But this book... this is the space opera I want to read. This book has the spirit of the genre's early days, characters who still marvel at the impossible immensity of the stars, but it isn't a pastiche or a throwback -- it's a natural evolution, and a remarkably satisfying one. The closest analogue I can think of is the oft-overpraised television show Firefly. Say what you will about the annoyingly zealous fanbase (or don't, you don't need the hate email); that show really did almost everything right in translating space opera to the modern age. The characters are complex, they operate in a world that is more grey than black & white, but each also has a clear moral center, so we know why they do the things they do, even when they are terrible things. You can make space opera (or epic fantasy or whatever) that is "dark" and "gritty" and still fun to read, with characters that are fun to read about. Because why would you want to explore the stars with assholes?

I'm having some trouble locking the tractor beam on my point here, but it basically comes down to this: if you want me to invest in your lengthy space epic, you better give me something more to care about than magic space technology macguffin crap, because I will get sick of that. This book gave me cool ideas and everything else: archetypal characters that nevertheless manage to be compelling and sympathetic, interesting and very well thought out politics and economics, constant narrative momentum without sacrificing character... It's the most fun I've had reading sci-fi in a long time.

I should have expected nothing less of Daniel Abraham, who is one-half of the pseudonymous James S.A. Corey; earlier this year, I gushed about the way he was able to do basically all the same stuff within the confines of the epic fantasy genre. And there is so much to like about the premise, just on the face of it: it's a few hundred years from now. Humanity has colonized Mars and invented an engine that allows fairly speedy travel, to a point. Our solar system has been colonized, with outposts on the moons of Saturn and spread across the asteroid belts, but we've gone no further because, come on, space is freaking huge and what are the chances we're going to invent warp drive and quickly stumble across the other needles in the galactic haystack? Besides, we've got enough to keep ourselves busy: colonizing space hasn't exactly united humanity, and Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance operate under an uneasy truce, with heavy prejudices on all sides.

This stuff is very well thought out. People in the outer planets have lived for generations free from the constraints of heavy gravity, and have started to differ physically from Earthers. Language and culture have shifted too. This makes racism easier. Meanwhile the sheer logistical challenges of sustaining life on dead rocks (from mining interstellar ice to diets of food manufactured from algae) mean the "Belters" are still beholden to their terrestrial cousins.

The plot is a potboiler, effectively combining space action with a noir murder mystery (the two storylines intertwined in chapters that alternate between two POV characters). The characters are, like I said, broad types in some ways, but you can do broad types very well; a stock character can still be well rounded and compelling. This book manages to star both a world-weary detective and an idealistic space captain (with a smart-mouthed love interest and some wise-cracking ship's crew in the background) and not feel like a retread, to give the characters tough moral choices (and sometimes they make the wrong ones), without turning them into unrepentant sociopaths. It goes back to what I was saying many, many paragraphs ago about honoring conventions while expanding upon them.

I don't know if I am communicating this very well, but this book is all of that and also just impossible to stop reading. It's also funny without trying too hard, and thoughtful without being overly constructed or preachy. It's the book I have been looking for every time I picked up a space epic. I just didn't know until I found it.
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Reading Progress

09/05/2011 page 100
09/14/2011 page 463
83.0% "i just might finish before book club tomorrow..."
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Read House of Suns or Century Rain before giving up on Reynolds.

Joel i'm not giving up, plus i have those two. i know house of suns is supposed to be his best and century rain just sounded cool. i just want to take a vacation from the revelation space series...

Seak (Bryce L.) Wow, I'm really dying to read this now. Thanks.

message 4: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Actually, Redemption Ark tones down the "psycho-freak show" aspects of Revelation Space and Chasm City and introduces a genuine hero! I think Reynolds had taken on board the criticism that it's difficult to get through such long books without a sympathetic protagonist anywhere in sight.

message 5: by mark (last edited Sep 19, 2011 08:46PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

mark monday yahoo, thanks for making up my mind on whether my next read will be Leviathon or At Basilisk Station. Leviathon Wakes all the way! after Lol Stein, of course. or not.

i just officiated a wedding yesterday. if i correctly remember a conversation we had a while back in one of these review threads, that must mean you are already married, since they were happening within the same couple months. Congratulations Joel!

Joel yeah, about six weeks back or thereabouts. thanks!

definitely read LW before david weber. he boring.

message 7: by Miriam (new)

Miriam after Lol Stein, of course. or not.

Don't feel bad, mark; it took me all of 10 minutes to give up on that one. I'm sure 600 pages of space opera is better than 100 pages of French ennui.

message 8: by mark (new) - rated it 1 star

mark monday ennui is so boring!

message 9: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I know. I can't feel anything but apathy for the ennui of (especially fictional) others.

message 10: by mark (new) - rated it 1 star

mark monday i just kind of, oh, je ne sais quoi, a lack of affect about lack of affect.

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

I was all geared up to compare this to Firefly (view spoiler)

message 12: by Katie (new) - added it

Katie Any love interests in this space opera, Joel?

message 13: by Joel (last edited Sep 04, 2012 09:39AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel Katie wrote: "Any love interests in this space opera, Joel?"

it isn't a prominent feature, but there is a bit of romantic banter/tension between one of the protagonists and a member of his crew.

otherwise, fully half of the book is driven by the other main character's romantic obsession with a missing girl, but it is hardly what you'd call a conventional romantic element.

message 14: by Joel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel Katie wrote: "Any love interests in this space opera, Joel?"

if you are still interested, romantic relationships play a larger role in the second book, both for the hero captain and a new character -- an eldery female diplomat from earth.

message 15: by Katie (new) - added it

Katie Thanks, Joel!

message 16: by Cody (new)

Cody This is a great review!

Jordan Hawker Amazing review for an amazing book, couldn't have said it better!

message 18: by Jinxy (new)

Jinxy Katte Was with you til you said firefly was overrated then lost interest lol. Love the expanse though

message 19: by Mário (new)

Mário Carvalho I've been reading this series since LW. And about a couple of pages into Holden he just turned into Fireflies cap. Amos is the big guy from cowboy beebop. The other guys have just sprung up in ny head.

message 20: by Joel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel Jinxy, I didn't say the show was overrated, I said the fan base is annoying. Which it is.

Mickey I agree with your review, having just finished the book. I was a bit wary having read the other reviews before reading, however I can happily say that I enjoyed it much more than the closest thing I've read to "space opera" recently which was " The Reality Dysfunction" by Peter F Hamilton.

I enjoyed this book very much.

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