I’d been hearing a lot of great things about The Expanse series (both the books and the show) over the last few months, so I decided to move it up on my reading list.
I’m really glad I did.
Book #1 of the series, titled Leviathan Wakes, envisions a 24th Century scenario where fusion rocket technology has allowed humanity to colonize the Sol system. Geography, politics, and economics have divided humanity into 3 distinct groups: those who live on Earth, those who live on Mars, and those who live in “the Belt”, an asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
It’s a textbook space opera and has everything I want in an SF novel: a believable if not particularly relatable setting with a tangible atmosphere, believable and mostly relatable characters, realistic dialogue, and a satisfying plot.
Outside of a few early scenes, the entire book takes place from the perspective of two characters – “Belter” detective Joe Miller and “Earther” executive officer James Holden – with their internal monologues making up a good chunk of the writing.
I personally enjoy this style of writing quite a bit when it’s done well, and I think James S. A. Corey nailed it on both the characters and their internal stories.
The first half of Leviathan Wakes is essentially a mystery-thriller that simply takes place in a science fiction setting. An heiress-turned-rebel has gone missing, an unknown biological weapon or entity is on the loose, and unknown forces are attempting to spark a full out war between Earth, Mars, and the Belt.
The story keeps you guessing at what the ultimate source of these mysteries is, and by extension, you are kept guessing about what the eventual concept of the book will be. By the time I reached the discovery stage of the book, I had guessed my way through a number of major SF concepts, and it made for an incredibly enjoyable reading experience.
There’s not much to dislike about Leviathan Wakes.
While I appreciated the ongoing changes in perspective between Miller and Holden, the time between these switches was all over the place, alternating between a few pages and much lengthier segments. Sometimes authors do this intentionally to create emotional moments, but I didn’t get that feel in this case, and I tend to prefer a more stable rhythm to these perspective switches.
I also would have liked one or two additional perspectives thrown into the mix. Part of the journey for the reader is realizing that Miller and Holden are very similar people who are simply operating off of different perspectives about how humanity operates. The back and forth between the two similar characters becomes a bit monotonous over the course of 577 pages.
Finally, most of the story’s complexity is in the unfolding of the mystery. Once the discovery phase has concluded, the story becomes fairly simple and concludes with a straightforward, “nod along” ending. I wasn’t unsatisfied with the end, and I enjoy this type of storytelling, but within the context of the SF genre, I wanted just a bit more.
Overall, I would highly recommend Leviathan Wakes to fans of both science fiction and fantasy, and I give it a 4 out of 5.
If you’ve already read the book yourself or you don’t care about seeing spoilers, continue below for a deeper dive into my thoughts on Leviathan Wakes and discussion with other readers in the comments.
I’ve broken the rest of my Leviathan Wakes review into the following sections:
- Premise, concepts and themes
- Characters and development arcs
- Dialogue and internal monologues
- World and atmosphere
- Plot and execution
Let’s take a closer look at each category.
Premise, Concepts & Themes
The premise of Leviathan Wakes isn’t anything special.
- Set in the relatively near future
- Marginally speculative technology
- Anticipated human colonization of the Sol system
- Well-worn story of outer colonies and their fight for independence
- Expected themes of greed, racism, tribalism, corruption and war
But it does bring in a few interesting ideas from the beginning that aren’t quite as common.
- The story focuses on asteroid belt colonies and imagines a biologically evolved subspecies of humans based on notably different living conditions.
- Mars is the prevailing military power due to its focus on military technology and closer proximity to resource-rich asteroids, while Earth gets its political power from being the only source of a large percentage of desired agriculture.
- “Belter” food uses complex chemistry to turn primarily moss, yeast, and fungus into approximations of more traditional food items like rice, beans, apples, and whiskey.
Where things really get interesting is when the core mysteries of the book are uncovered.
The source of all the hallowbaloo is a protomolecule called the “Phoebe bug” – “a set of free-floating instructions designed to adapt to and guide other replicating systems”. It was supposedly launched toward Earth by an extraterrestrial entity over 2 billion years in the past, at a time when there were only single-celled organisms on Earth.
When the protomolecule touches organic matter, it begins taking over and rewriting the matter to create something new, almost like a virus rewriting DNA but at a much larger scale.
This leads to a wide array of interesting questions:
- What is the core goal of the protomolecule?
- Who sent it and why?
- Was the intent positive, negative, or neutral?
- Are we heading into a story about alien civilizations, AI, evolution, or something else entirely?
In many ways, I still don’t know what the core concept of this series will be, and I love that.
Characters & Development Arcs
Everyone has different standards and preferences when it comes to characters. For me, believability is always my number #1 consideration.
I want believable characters, and Leviathan Wakes delivers.
Both Joe Miller and James Holden are normal people who find themselves in the middle of extraordinary events that make them feel like they are wildly in over their head – which they are – and both their thoughts and actions feel appropriate within the context.
The characters are also interesting… which is especially helpful in a book driven by internal monologues.
One thing I really appreciated was how Miller doesn’t fully devolve into the stereotype of the divorced, disillusioned drunk who suicides as a suspect plot device.
Miller is very pragmatic in his perspective of the universe and his own place in it. He accepts the consequences of his choices and acts consistently with his principles. In the end, he feels content with his life as he readies himself to die.
In another stereotype bust, there’s a moment in Holden’s arc where he expresses his love for shipmate Naoimi Nagata, who immediately shuts him down by explaining his history of infatuation, exaggeration, and separation over the previous years they’ve worked together. Rather then escalate the normal love story arc, Corey creates a believable moment of introspection that allows the main character to grow.
Both Miller and Holden have moments of realization where they discover they aren’t as great as they thought they were and then attempt to learn from it. These types of moments aren’t common in the SFF genre, and they added quite a bit of depth to the characters and overall reading experience.
Dialogue & Internal Monologues
Suspect dialogue is the easiest way to ruin an otherwise great book, and fortunately, Leviathan Wakes delivers dialogue as believable as its characters.
That’s really I have to say. The dialogue is believable. It’s reasonably engaging. It helps you get to know the main and side characters.
The real star of the show is the inner monologues. We spend a lot of time reading about what Miller and Holden are thinking, and in Miller’s case, he even thinks in the form of a dialogue with his imaginary version of Julie Mao, the heiress-turned-rebel he was hired to find.
These monologues give you a deep understanding of both characters, and Corey did a great job in writing them. I’m hoping for more of the same but from a more diverse cast of characters in future books.
World & Atmosphere
As I mentioned earlier, the world felt believable and the atmosphere was reasonably tangible.
Overall, the world felt like a sideshow to the characters and the mystery plotline. I much prefer this style to the excessively descriptive world-building of many popular authors in the genre, but that said, I would have been happy with just a bit more, and I hope Corey continues to build on the existing foundation in the future novels.
As a side note, I really dislike made-up dialects and accents in fiction, and the incomprehensible Belter conversations were no exception. Fortunately, these exchanges were used sparingly, so it wasn’t much of an issue.
Plot & Execution
Leviathan Wakes starts as a mystery-thriller and ends as a space opera.
The mystery portion is incredibly well done with tons of foreshadowing, incremental revelations, and interesting twists.
The space opera portion certainly isn’t done poorly, but it doesn’t really get a chance to develop, despite occupying a solid quarter of the book. For all the locations mentioned and distances covered, the setting feels a bit small. And the more interesting possibilities of the protomolecule’s discovery aren’t really explored.
One the front end of the story, I found one of the central recurring plot devices to be a bit ill-conceived.
The major events of the book are kicked off by an open broadcast from James Holden, where he explains that his ship was destroyed by a ship with Martian technology that left Martian military branding in its wake.
This broadcast is immediately seen by everyone in the solar system and kickstarts a ward between Mars and Ceres.
As someone living in the internet age, it’s impossible for me to conceive of a scenario in an even more technologically advanced future where a random, non-influential person could have a simple report immediately amplified and focused on by everyone across the solar system.
Every week, hundreds of reports of notably worse events than 50 people dying are broadcast from all over the world and command only miniscule amounts of attention.
Given that this Holden broadcast scenario is used repeatedly as a significant plot device, I wanted more justification for how it was possible.
- If broadcasting was available to everyone, how could one person command attention like this through all the noise?
- If there are gatekeepers, which gatekeepers greenlit Holden’s broadcasts into the channels needed to be seen by everyone?
What do you think? Am I missing something or this is a pretty big plot hole?
On the backend, I enjoyed the final idea that Miller uses to resolve the book – the idea that the protomolecule had overlaid its systems on top of the “roads” of Julie’s consciousness in the same way that Ceres’ tunnels were built around the pre-existing mining tunnels.
My minor issue is that I don’t remember there being foreshadowing for this at all throughout the book. It would have been easy to add in a few references, but instead, it feels like a random “aha moment” that Miller has to solve an unsolvable problem, almost like magic getting someone out of an impossible situation in fantasy.
That said, it’s a genuinely believable solution in a scenario where one would be hard to find, and it also introduces the enjoyable twist that Julie has been alive the whole time.
Overall, I found the plot and execution to be satisfying, and I’m hoping we get to dive deeper into the more fascinating SF concepts teased in Book #1.