j's Reviews > Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
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's review
Jan 17, 2011

really liked it
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..."
01/30/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 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.

message 2: by j (new) - rated it 4 stars

j 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 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!

message 6: by j (new) - rated it 4 stars

j 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 j (last edited Sep 04, 2012 09:39AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

j 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 j (new) - rated it 4 stars

j 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 j (new) - rated it 4 stars

j 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.

message 21: by Matt (new) - rated it 4 stars

Matt Yeah, I recently tried Reynolds, Banks, and Hamilton and I just couldn't get into them. What the James SA Corey team does most importantly is create likable characters and gets them into exciting situations, which seems like it should be the basics of any good sci-fi novel but apparently is lost on the previously mentioned authors.

message 22: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike This is the perfect critque of Reynolds' new Poseidon's trilogy (whose grimdark books I am usually fond of)

Turrean Laughed right aloud at " Because why would you want to explore the stars with assholes?"

message 24: by Phil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Phil Meagher Wow- this is a hell a review. Thank you!

message 25: by Kenneth (new)

Kenneth Mandap Your review sold me out to read this book. Thanks! I'll be picking up this soon (when life and school permits me to do so). :)

message 26: by Chris (new) - rated it 1 star

Chris Martel I read the first two volumes in one week. I found out I could check them out at library, saves a lot, after all each costs anywhere from $16.00 to $18.00

message 27: by Holly (new) - added it

Holly Hidfivdudhdhudbssijvdich

message 28: by Jon (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jon Fantastic review. It felt tired and cliché for me for about the first hundred pages and then BOOM, everything kicks in and I realized I had in spite of myself grown to like the characters and have to force myself to put it down.

Chinstrapmcdouchebag are the banks protagonists amoral? or is their morality too far advanced?

message 30: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Thanks, j! I've just finished Pratchett's & Baxter's Long Mars, and look forward to finishing the series, though that means very little new, to me, Pratchett left to read 😥. Honestly, I've read very little Sci-Fi since I was a teenager & a bit beyond. Except for Terry Pratchett's few YA & adult Sci-Fi books, just because they were his. One usually a super fan and reads EVERYTHING & rereads it for ever, or doesn't care for him, and that's that. I've been planning on reading old favourites, now classics, like The Left Hand of Darkness & The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, even bought new copies, as mine from the 70's were cleared out long ago. Sorry about the rambling, it's a post migraine symptoms & editing in the iPad app isn't easy. I have actually been doing it, believe it or not. So! The thanks is for a review that makes me want to read a sci-fi series I've only just learned about because another book in the series is on today's trending, or popular this week or what ever they call it here. That book got good reviews, but I hate jumping into the middle of a series. And what if only that book is good & the rest of the series is crap? I know writers can have their ups & downs, so I never expect all of each book to be perfect (unless the Author is Jane Austen George Elliott, Henry James, Anthony Trollope...(why the gap? People help me out!) JRR Tolkien, Madeline L'Engle, Ursula K Le Guin, Jorge Louise Borges, Nagib Mahfouz, Isabel Allende, Victoria Clayton, Sharon Kay Penman, Charlaine Harris, Laurie R. King, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Donna Leon, Alexander Dumas (ok, some of the Musketeer books maybe bot boilers, but NOT The Black Tulip), V. S. Naipaul, Salmon Rushdie, Neil Gaiman & of course Terry Pratchett. Oh dear. I should have gone to sleep rather than inflict that on poor innocent readers. I hope you all skipped over that! Well, I'm not going to erase it or fix the chronology. No I'm not a librarian, just a wanna-be. I do have too much time to read. You don't want to know.

Anyway thanks for the introduction to James S.A. Corey. I very much look forward to reading Leviathan Wakes & the rest of series. Wait! The Expanse! Duh! The TV show! Have not watched any, spouse says it's ok. Probably why which ever book is on my home page. Who said "Never Judge A Book By It's Movie"? Must work for TV too. I loved both versions of True Blood, and I've fallen behind watching Game of Thrones, but the first TV series was practically word for word identical to the book, so I stopped reading. After I catch up watching, I'll have to read as well. But I'll not bother with this TV series. TV takes away to much time from reading.

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