It has been a while since I consumed a book as ravenously as I just did Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Exanse trilogy. The last year or so has been a steady stream of fits and starts, of stories abandoned five chapters in, of characters and plots left to rot by the side of the road by my short attention span. I was beginning to think the lack of sleep that accompanies parenthood was affecting my ability to digest good fiction. Now, after reading this excellent page turner I see the problem for what it was: A misguided attempt to find the next great economy priced, self published title.
Last year brought one of the best books I’ve read in many years in Hugh Howie’s "Wool". For those that haven’t had the pleasure you can pick it up for $5 for your Kindle. (It is absolutely amazing but that review will have to wait until I can figure out how to write about it without completely spoiling what made it great) The price tag for Wool was the problem. A $5, self published book showed me that there are many great authors out there outside of the standard publishing machine and I set out to find them. What I found instead was a stream of mediocre science fiction and a few pieces of steaming dog crap. I was on the verge of giving up and going back to the bestseller list for more of the recommendations that had bored me so the past few years. Then I saw an ad for Leviathan Wakes by James S. Corey on Facebook. Usually I pass right by these annoying ads. But as any child reared on mediocre late 80’s/early 90’s sci-fi horror will tell you, anything with Leviathan in the title merits at least a cursory glance.
A quick Google search revealed positive reviews by George R.R. Martin (Corey’s mentor and one time employer) among others. Leviathan is also the recipient of the 2012 Hugo Award. The Hugo was the clincher. So we’ve got a badass title and it won an award also handed out to Dune and Enders Game? Sign me up.
I was not disappointed.
While the story is derivative of several familiar sci-fi plot lines and techniques, what made this adventure ride really come alive was the juxtaposition of the two protagonists and the creative way their stories were told. Leviathan Wakes is the story of Captain Holden, the prototypical XO of a spaceship thrown into the captain’s chair by unfortunate circumstances - space opera at its finest. Holden is the righteous hero. The cocksure rebel with the golden smile who always gets the girl. He plays by his own rules but his ruleset is squarely in the “good guy” camp.
Leviathan Wakes is also the story of Detective Miller, the noir detective whose story gradually reveals itself to be far from the “Humphrey Bogart on a space station” you expect it to be. Miller is the gruff, streetwise detective on the backside of his career. He’s seen the filthy underbelly of humanity and doesn’t have time or patience for Holden’s righteous ruleset.
This novel features the usual space battles, a pretty awesome monster, political intrigue and the bad guys are revealed to be of a particularly nasty bent. It is Miller’s story, however, that ultimately makes this novel tick. Holden is set up as the hero and portrayed as such throughout but Miller is the one the reader really gets to sink their claws into. He supplies the substance, the stomach filling meat and potatoes, to Holden’s flashy dessert course. I spent the first half of the book figuring out where I thought Miller’s story was going and the second half slowly realizing where it had actually gone. Corey’s excellent use of clues hidden as misleading internalized dialog had me doubling back to reread previous passages more than once. By the end Miller’s journey had my guts twisted and eviscerated. Miller’s extreme anti hero antics are set beautifully against the superhero ethos of Holden in a way that has the reader questioning right from wrong. As in all good Science Fiction, the story shines the light on us here in the present, leaving us to question what we would do in the same circumstances.
Ultimately, Leviathan Wakes found itself on the top shelf of my Science Fiction Bookshelf (its a metaphor, I don’t really have a Sci-Fi bookshelf) alongside some of the greats. Its certainly no Dune but Corey just a certainly earned his Hugo. He weaved a tale that first and foremost kept me turning the page but perhaps most importantly told a great story. Like all great Science Fiction though, the real story isn’t the spaceships, the monsters or the wonderful settings. The real story, the one that had me repeatedly tapping the right side of my Kindle screen, was the human story. The story of Holden and Miller. The story of us.
For under $5, I call that a win.