Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
Book 1 of The Expanse

Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, "The Scopuli," they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to "The Scopuli" and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

Ah, the quest for another satisfying science fiction epic carries on...
If you're looking through current Sci-Fi publications, you're sure to stumble across James S. A. Corey's "The Expanse" series.  So far it seems well-received, and with three books of the series already released, it can be a good bet to place your chips on.

The story itself easily falls into the "space opera" category, with many adventures in the greater reaches of space - but only our solar system.  While that in itself is, of course, a miracle by modern standards, I suppose I'm used to science fiction having a bit farther of a reach.  Even though space is incomprehensibly big, limiting the story to just our solar system gives it a deceptively small sensation, like having tea in a closet next to a ballroom.  I dunno.

The plot of the book, once it becomes apparent, hinges on the strained inter-human politics of the solar system.  Earth and her colonies have a mutual mistrust.  Even the colonies themselves aren't exactly simpatico.  Mars feels a certain camaraderie with the Belters - but only as long as the Belters are supplying them with the minerals they need.  Not only are the politics of each group different, but spending lifetimes in low gravity is starting to change the physiology of Belters, making the two groups stand out from each other even more than their differing politics would indicate.

The real driving force is the underlying mystery of "who is trying to orchestrate a solar system-wide war?"  No one seems to gain from the chaos and everyone seems to lose, yet everyone is eager for war.  However, the horrors of war are a pale shadow of what is truly happening, which is only revealed in small chunks as the story progresses.  Miller is seeking a lost daughter of a rich magnate, while Holden is hell-bent on revenge for whoever was responsible for killing his crew and blowing up his ship.  The plot is interesting:  who is responsible for starting this war?  What happened to Miller's target?

Unfortunately, where the narrative loses most of its momentum is with the two main characters.  Holden and Miller alternate chapters, taking the reader at their sides as their uncover darker mysteries than seem possible.  But it's the mysteries that are interesting, not the characters.  Miller is a disgraced detective who's trying to prove that he's not washed up.  Holden is a sometimes-angry, sometimes-chivalrous former navy officer out for revenge - and sweet lovin' with the only woman around.  Sure.

Here's the thing:  "James S. A. Corey" is actually the pen name of two authors.   Each author took on POV character and wrote the chapters.  This isn't a terrible idea, really.  However, the chapters are written in third person, not in first, so the "voice" of the narrator has to be more generic 3p-Limited, a camera following the characters and reporting.  No two people write the same way, so the style they settled on is so bland that only the Michael Bay-esque action sequences keep the story lively.
"Things might be getting boring..!"    "Add an explosion!"

I'm generally not a stickler for "Show, don't tell," but even I started to notice things in this book.  We are told how the characters feel.  We are told that they are honorable (or angry).  We are told how they're changing.  (I can't decide what's worse:  that the reader is told that "this is a character arc btw", or that they reader can't tell that with the prose alone.)  When I think "Oh, he's being honest?  That's what that conversation is supposed to mean?  Really?" or "He changed?  When did that happen?  Was I supposed to notice that," it's hard to take it as a good sign.

Given that the solar system is half female, it's also a disappointment to see so few meaningful female characters.  Essentially there are two:  Julie, the missing woman that Miller was told to find (aka "The Damsel in Distress") and Naomi, one of Holden's crew (aka "The 'Love' Interest").  Hardly anything legendary here.  More than once, I wished Devi Morris would show up and start shooting first, asking questions later.

On the cover of my edition, George R R Martin has a quote, "It's been a long time since we've had a kickass space opera..."  Now, one of the co-authors is his assistant, and while I'm not going to accuse anyone of nepotism, I would just like to point out that he isn't exactly saying that this is the next great "kickass space opera."  (Funnily, on later editions, the quote is pared down to simply "...kickass space opera..."  So yeah.  I"ll just leave that there.)

I know I'm sounding a little down on the book, but despite the watered-down narrator and intangible characters, I liked the story.  Liked it - didn't love it.  The final few chapters have enough genuine excitement and creepfest plot development to make a reader want the next book.  However, I would have enjoyed this book more had it lost about a third of its length and gained about more interesting - and possibly female - protagonists.

3 Stars!
Will I read the sequel?  Yep, doing it right now. 
More explosions!  Quick!

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