Book Review: “Leviathan Wakes” by James S. A. Corey

After ardent recommendations from several friends, I finally read Leviathan Wakes. The initial impression validated all the praise, enthralling me with parallel storylines from two distinct perspectives. Joe Miller, a detective on the crime-riddled Ceres outpost, gets assigned a missing persons case that’s more complex than it seems. His early chapters read like Raymond Chandler in space, all the favorite hardboiled gumshoe tropes delightfully reimagined on an asteroid colony. Meanwhile Jim Holden, a crewman for a cargo freighter, finds himself in an unexpected leadership role after disaster strikes.

Holden struck me as a bit of a “Mary Sue”: his only flaw is that he’s too noble, every woman he ships with secretly pines to hop in his bunk, and he shares the author’s first name? It’s a little much, but the mysterious connection between his adventure and Miller’s kept me turning pages to discover where the two narratives would collide. That had to be the most exciting part of the story, right?

LeviathanWrong. Where the plot lines converge is where Leviathan started to go downhill for me. Alien body horror gets tossed into the already-dense mix of space opera elements, making the whole thing feel less plausible. The brisk pace grinds to a halt. Miller—who develops an unsettling obsession with the young female subject of his investigation—turns whiny and self-pitying, while Holden and his amiable-but-predictable crew never get enough character development to keep them interesting through almost 600 pages.

Disengaged from the story, I started to fixate on small but bothersome errors:  “It was a lot of ordinance to use, especially in the middle of a shooting war….” Yeah, firefights don’t typically require a heavy payload of municipal legislation. Corey’s editor needs to learn homonyms. (Public service announcement: “ordnance” is the proper spelling of the word referring to explosives.) Nothing kills a writer’s credibility like misusing the essential terminology of their genre. Unless, perhaps, not knowing when to stop. Leviathan went on about 30% too long and seemed to collapse under its own weight. I found myself skimming by the end, chasing the conclusion out of impatient obligation rather than the captivated suspense I’d felt for the early chapters.

That’s not to say Leviathan was all bad. Corey creates some fascinating visions for the distant future. I particularly enjoyed the notion of “belters”, humans native to the Kuiper Belt whose unique culture and physiology developed around life in null gravity. Sadly, most of what we learn about them is secondhand, “telling” rather than “showing”. The same applies to Earth and Mars. Although they’re clearly superpowers in the new solar system order, they remain distant antagonists, frequently referenced but never explored.

Maybe being a sci-fi writer has made me an overly critical sci-fi reader, I thought. As a control test, I asked my Laddie to give the book a shot. “It could have been good,” he concluded. “Instead it went weird.” So maybe it’s not just me.

Not long after we finished the book, The Expanse—a SyFy channel adaptation of Corey’s novels—popped up on Netflix. Despite some trepidation after our last streaming sci-fi experience (I’ll save my rant about Altered Carbon for another post), we watched the first episode. It met our low expectations. Within ten minutes, the show indulged in gratuitous zero-g sex. I just can’t take a hero seriously when the first interaction we witness is a naked woman with her legs around him, panting “you’re entirely too good at this!” (Didn’t we already stress the importance of  “show, don’t tell”?) It also confirmed my impression of Holden as a shameless Mary Sue.

That scene was just the first in a parade of problematic representations of female characters. Holden’s shipmate Naomi sports a short punky hairstyle, giving her badass Belter flair, but the producers felt obliged to compensate for this unfeminine look by zipping her jumpsuit down to the cleavage-baring zone. Miller’s ex-wife hangover from the novel is replaced with former partner hangover. I adore the partner-lover complex, so this might’ve worked for me if Miller—who irritated me before the first commercial break with his flimsy attempt at a low-g Humphrey Bogart—hadn’t been so patronizingly creepy about the whole thing. The television adaptation, like the first novel, failed to hold my interest for subsequent installments.

Much as I wanted to like Leviathan, it ultimately got a bit too–dare I say “expansive”?–and collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. It would make tolerable binge-reading for a long flight, but not so gripping that I would cross the galaxy to hear how the story ends.

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