Book Review of “Leviathan Wakes,” the First of the “Expanse” Series

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Cover image for the novel “Leviathan Wakes”

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I just finished reading the 2011 science fiction blockbuster Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It’s the first in the nine-book Expanse series and is the basis for the television series The Expanse.

In the future, humanity has spread out from Earth and colonized Mars and the Asteroid Belt (or just “the Belt”). However, political, social, and financial enmity exists between the three populations and tensions could be ignited into war at any moment.

Chapters in this tome alternate between the perspectives of Joe Miller, a burned out, alcoholic detective working for an Earth-funded police force on the asteroid Ceres, and Jim Miller, the executive officer aboard a “water freighter” Canterbury.

On Ceres, the mysteries mount. Why did all of the gangs on Ceres suddenly vanish along with the police’s riot gear? Why has the IPO, the Belter activist group on Ceres, become so reasonable and cooperative? And who is Julie Mao, an heiress-cum-revolutionary, the girl he was supposed to kidnap and ship off to her wealthy parents as a “side job?” Trying to solve Julie’s mystery along with his drinking and general ineptitude get Miller fired, but that’s when his adventure really begins.

The Canterbury is a tanker designed to harvest water from Saturn’s rings and transport it for sale to the Belt. It’s tedious work and only the dregs of space pilots and engineers take such jobs. Jim Holden is the “Cant’s” executive officer or XO and one of the few survivors. When the Canterbury stops near a small asteroid to investigate a derelict spacecraft’s distress signal, instead of finding the pilot who was supposed to be Julie Mao, they discover a trap. A stealth space raider destroys the Canterbury but spares the shuttle containing Holder and his small crew. Now “Captain,” Holder also must solve the mystery of Julie Mao in order to find those who murdered the Cant’s crew. This takes them aboard a Martian battleship, an escape from certain death, and then into even greater danger.

Julie Mao is the one thing that brings Miller and Holder together, along with forging an uneasy alliance between them and the true force behind the IPO, a former Earth military general named Fred who is now seeking peace between Earth, Mars, and the Belt just as they’ve all gone to war.

Behind it all is a mysterious plot founded by a wealthy and insane despot who is planning to unleash a force that would completely rewrite human DNA all across the solar system. Julie Mao is the only person who can complete this plan or possibly stop it.

Holder, the IPO, and Earth find a way to destroy the experiment along with what used to be over a million human lives, but finally when Miller finds the entity that was once Julie Mao, he begs Holden to give him time to convince Julie that what she’s doing, driving the Asteroid Eros toward the Earth, will kill 30 billion people. Will Miller succeed in reaching Julie, the woman he’s fantasized about for over a year but never met? If he doesn’t, either Earth dies, or Holden lets Earth’s entire nuclear deterrent force vaporize Eros and everyone inside.

A lot of people say they’ve read books they couldn’t put down, but this one is really a page turner. It is excellent science fiction and I highly recommend it. I checked, and in spite of the novel’s extremely high quality, it won exactly zero awards, although I did find it was nominated in 2012. Given what I’ve seen of those works that have won, I wonder if this is yet another indictment of the awards system in general? At least the series is a “New York Times Best Seller.”

“Leviathan Wakes” is marvelous without pandering to some social justice cause or “representation” or whatever you want to call it. Yes, the two main protagonists are male, but the worlds they grew up in are very different than what is often protested against in the media and entertainment industries. The series has also sustained nine novels, any number of short stories, and a television series. What does that tell you?

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