Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book #1), by James S.A. Corey — a book review


So . . .

Okay, this is a seven-year-old novel at this point, the first in The Expanse series. It was published in the summer of 2011, and went on to be nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards for Best Novel in 2012. It didn’t win, but to be nominated is an honor unto itself.

I should have my science-fiction nerd credentials revoked. I didn’t bother to read this novel until after watching the first season, and most of the second, of the SyFy television adaptation of this novel (and the next). The Expanse television series went through three seasons on SyFy (I’ve only barely started the third as of this writing), and was cancelled, only to be picked up by Amazon TV. A fourth season is coming at some point, which is great news because I have enjoyed the show.

My original plan was to read Leviathan Wakes prior to watching the TV version. But, that’s not how it played out. I had some openings in my television viewing schedule, and an Amazon Prime membership, so I started watching the series. I was immediately hooked.

When I began reading the first novel in the series, I was prepared to accept that books and television shows are different media, and I shouldn’t expect the novel to be anything like the SyFy series. That’s been my experience in the past. But, as it turns out, the television series is a very faithful adaptation of the written fiction, which stands to reason with the participation of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers behind the pen name James S. A. Corey. Yes, the temptation is to say that the book is better than the film, and it is, in many ways. It’s more detailed, and we’re able to get inside the heads of our lead characters more.

I’m happy that I watched the television series first, though. The TV series has provided me with visual images of all the main characters and locations that I’m reading about in the book. I accept that Miller should have been taller on-screen, as Naomi probably should as well. As life-long Belters, both characters grew up in lower gravity than the others.  But, beyond that minor quibble, when I read about the characters in the book, I pictured the faces of the television characters. That is a great advantage. I’ve experienced similar things when reading franchise fiction, such as Star Trek and Star Wars books, or the Mass Effect novels. It is a sign of the times that a work of fiction becomes a multimedia experience. This one is, for me at least.

It occurs to me that I haven’t said what this book is about. That’s because I’ve already reviewed seasons one and two of the television show, which definitely encompasses the content of this novel. Just in case you haven’t read my reviews (and why haven’t you?), I’ll recapitulate here.

Five members of the ice hauling ship Canterbury (nicknamed The Cant) use a shuttle to investigate an abandoned transport vessel, the Scopuli. A stealth vessel destroys the Canterbury. XO Jim Holden broadcasts a message to the entire system implicating Mars in the destruction of the Cant. The shuttle is picked up by the Martian battleship Donnager. The Martian ship is destroyed as well, but not before Holden and his crew can escape in the Martian light frigate they rename Rocinante.

Meanwhile, on Ceres, Star Helix Detective Miller is given the kidnap job of locating missing heiress Julie Mao. This job becomes intertwined with the narrative of Holden and his crew. An ancient alien weapon called the protomolecule is involved, and things spiral quickly out of control.

This novel is part space opera, part space noir detective novel. Here’s where the book deviates wildly from the television series. There’s really nothing about what’s going on politically with the UN or with Mars. There’s no Avasarala or Bobbie Draper. There’s no Jules-Pierre Mao. I’m taking it on faith that these characters appear in future novels. This isn’t their story.

In this novel, there are only two viewpoint characters. The entire novel is written in third-person limited. There’s Holden, and then there’s Miller. Two distinct voices, two separate point-of-views. And, this is handled well in the novel. Okay, Julie Mao is a POV character in the brief prologue, but that’s it. The story of this novel takes us from the Cant‘s destruction through Miller convincing Julie Mao to drive Eros into the atmosphere of Venus. Meanwhile, all-out war threatens the entire solar system.

We end this novel knowing that there’s more to come, but the structure of the story is as good as any bombastic blockbuster movie.

I’m looking forward to reading the sequel to this novel, Caliban’s War, if only because I know I’ve gotten much of the story already on the second season of the television series.

There’s not much in the way of original ideas in this novel, in the same way that there wasn’t much original in Star Wars. That doesn’t matter. This is a rousing good read, with great science-fiction worldbuilding and heroic characters. The stakes are high, the action continuous, and the ending, while not final, is satisfying.

I recommend this one. If you’re a fan of classic science-fiction and space opera, you need to read this.

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