James A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes (2011), Caliban’s War (2012)

Corey_1 Corey_2James S. A. Corey is actually two people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The former is a productive writer, author of over a dozen novels and multiple short stories. The latter is (or rather was, before becoming a half of James A. Corey) mostly known for his collaboration with George R. R. Martin.

The writers banded together to to create a sf pentalogy which would illustrate the painful and cumbersome process of humanity’s reaching out to stars. Forget that at the start it was supposed to be a trilogy – one does not collaborate with George R. R. Martin and escapes unscathed ;).

The whole series is already out. The final installment, Nemesis Games, hit the shelves not a full month ago, and SyFy is already making a TV adaptation called The Expanse and scheduled for airing in December. I guess there’s no better time for a short analysis J. I’m currently in the middle of book three, so eventually there will be part 2 of the review, covering remaining three novels. But for now – just the first two: Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War.

Leviathan Wakes was nominated for both Hugo and Locus awards. It’s a soft sf/space opera. Soft, which means that we don’t get lengthy descriptions of technological innovations or social changes inevitable in further stages of human evolution. Well, actually we don’t get any descriptions of that sort; the first installment is essentially a mystery drama in a sf wrapping. The second – a political drama in a sf wrapping. And it’s not a complaint – I’m simply stating facts, so that nobody mistakes The Expanse series for a new Asimov or Heinlein, or Clarke. Because Leviathan Wakes, and, to a lesser extent, Caliban’s War, have their own merit, and their own joys, as soft space operas.

Leviathan Wakes shows humanity in a precarious moment, when the solar system is already colonized by people, but they have no means to expand any further. Humanity is divided, as usual, one might add. This time, however, the division lies between the inhabitants of the inner planets: Earth and Mars, living down the gravity well, and the Belters: people settled on or around the outer planets, various moons and asteroids of the solar system. There are some physical and physiological differences between the two: Earthers are squat and short, more muscled and more used to gravity than their Belt counterparts. There are also political differences: the Belters, feeling that they are treated as a second-category citizens, form a political alliance called OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), which doesn’t shy from reverting to terrorism on occasion, but ultimately plans to become an official political entity, matched in force with Earth and Mars.

In the middle of this political and technological crisis there is a mysterious attack on a decrepit ship called the Scopuli. The distress signal from the ship is picked up by the ice-hauler named Canterbury and a small contingent of its crew goes over to the Scopuli to investigate. Before they are able to come back to their ship to report on their – rather baffling – findings, Canterbury is blasted into tiny smoldering pieces by a seemingly invisible military vessel. All clues point to Mars. And this is what James Holden, an Earther with a military background, former XO on the Canterbury, one of the five remaining members of the ice-hauler’s crew, says in an unrestricted message that reaches to the furthest corners of the solar system.

Nice move, Holden. Thanks to you, every single inhabited piece of rock is now in uproar. And it gets worse. Because not everything is what it seems. One member of the crew of the Scopuli had escaped and is the only person who knows what really happened. Her name is Juliette Mao. She’s a classic poor rich girl, an Earther owning a race-ship who had become a member of the OPA to fight against inequality. Furthermore, she’s the rebellious scion of Mao-Kwikowski, the biggest corporation in the entire solar system. Her family wants her back, even against her will. And this dirty work goes to an old, bone-tired and cynical detective from Ceres – Josephus Miller, Humphrey Bogart of The Expanse series, the full package, even with a hat. Miller’s and Holden’s paths cross inevitably, and lead them to some pretty nasty discoveries, among them the reasons for the death of an entire population of Eros, the asteroid orbiting between Mars and Earth.

Paradoxically, the conflict between Holden and Miller becomes the central axis of the book. A cynic versus an idealist; a functional alcoholic, who loses his job and becomes obsessed with his last case versus a wide-eyed poster boy, who lucks out at every step and even gets his own state-of-the-art military ship. This ideological clash plays out on a colorful canvas: the end of the world as we know it; military and political conflicts threatening to tear humanity apart; terrible, genocidal corporations acting with impunity in the face of a social collapse. What else could there be? And yet, it was mostly the small-scale personal drama that kept me turning the pages. The rest was fast-paced and well-written, but ultimately predictable.

Leviathan Wakes has a tinge of horror, a dash of romance, a tiny, tiny drop of military action, and quite a bit of flying around and freaking out. The mixture is a really pleasant and enjoyable read. Not mind-boggling, mind you, but light and refreshing. Of course, with Miller on board, there is also justice to be meted out, and rest assured, it eventually is. But only mostly – and that’s where Caliban’s War comes up.

Unfortunately, Caliban’s War shows many symptoms of the Sequel Disease: it expands on the already known premises, which means that it essentially is bound by those same premises. Sequel Disease is also sometimes known as Moreism: there has to be more of everything. And Caliban’s War has more POVs, more foes, who are of course more deadly and more terrible. Not sure if you could believe it, but yes, there’s even more at stake. It’s not a bad book, but it is definitely worse than its predecessor. Holden becomes a one-trick pony. Babbling out to the Universe whatever comes to his mind has become his favorite pastime, or maybe even his defining trait. His idealism goes far enough that he tries to introduce democracy on a military-grade ship. Ship’s name is Rocinante, if you need any more graphic reminders of Holden’s resemblance to Don Quixote. There are, however, some new characters who ultimately save the day: Bobbie, an enormous female Martian marine, and Chrisjen Avasarala, a small, old, and viciously swearing Indian woman, who holds the position of an U.N. Deputy Undersecretary of Executive Administration.

The Expanse series is very politically correct and gender-aware. The bad guys, at least in the first two books, are all white, male and wealthy Earthers. The most intelligent characters are unequivocally women: Naomi Nagata, Holden’s second-in-command, Juliette Mao, Chrisjen Avasarala. Their racial background is mixed, but rarely white, and the same goes for the Belter/Earther division: even if they come from Earth, they have whole humanity’s interests at heart. Applause! Frankly, it’s all slightly disappointing, even if one of the baddest guys is called Dresden ;). The political plot is rather naïve as well. Almost from the very beginning we know who, what, where. So what kept me reading?

The Expanse series is well written, fast-paced and filled with action. It has some very interesting imagery, and quite a few ideas about what human life could look like in the interim between colonizing the solar system (which even now seems a viable option) and reaching the stars to leave the Earth for good. There are quite a few likeable characters, and it’s easy to find one to root for. The plot is – even if not jaw-dropping awesome, then at least high quality and intriguing enough to see it through to the end. Plus, there are vomit zombies. Who wouldn’t want some? All in all, it’s a good summer read, and if you sometimes have to stifle an urge to chuck the book against a wall – well, that’ll be some much needed exercise for you! 😉

Score: I 8/10, II 6,5/10

4 thoughts on “James A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes (2011), Caliban’s War (2012)

  1. piotrek

    Ok, once again… a book sitting on my shelf for… some time, read by Ola before I got to it.
    Not a typical space opera it seems. A pity. I was hoping for a kind of Honor Harrington-light – covers are sometimes misleading, apparently. But still, I have it and I’m going to read it, one day 😉 Maybe after reading the final part of the review…


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