Friday, March 25, 2011

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey--Book Review

Hachette Books Group/Orbit, ISBN 9780316129084, June 2011

Leviathan Wakes is a wonderfully satisfying space opera, set in the asteroid belt a few centuries from now. Earth is old, wealthy, powerful, but maybe not so energetic and innovative anymore. Mars is younger, poorer, but more vigorous, innovative, and on the rise. The Belt--it's a very working class area, mostly owned by Earth-based or Mars-based corporations, but with its own emerging culture. They make do, waste nothing, live inside converted asteroids, and call their homes holes. Ceres, Eros, Tycho, and the ships we see are all very lived-in, well-used by people who mostly have never lived anywhere that air can be taken for granted. The beginnings of an independence movement, the Outer Planets Alliance, or OPA, exists, but the dangers of disrupting the status quo are obvious to Belters, so there's a somewhat tense and uneasy balance. There's no interstellar travel, but the first generation colony ship is preparing to leave within the next couple of years.

Our two viewpoint characters are Joe Miller, a police officer on Ceres, and Jim Holden, an Earth man serving as the XO of a Belter ice miner, the Canterbury. They have very different worldviews and values, and we get their stories in alternating chapters.

It's against this background that Miller gets a extra assignment: find Julie Mao, daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder on Luna, and ship her back to her parents--involuntarily, because she's not going willingly. Meanwhile,  XO Jim Holden leads the boarding party to investigate a derelict ship called Scopuli. It's abandoned, and while there's evidence of a struggle, the motive clearly wasn't robbery. Scopuli's own distress signal had been disabled, and the signal Canterbury picked up was added by whoever boarded, and is powered by a Martian battery.

Scopuli is bait in a trap, and with terrifying speed, Jim Holden finds himself the captain of Canterbury's shuttle Knight, and of the few surviving crew. And shortly after that, having broadcast events and what they think they know about them to the entire listening solar system, they're prisoners aboard a Martian military ship.

After that, things start to get complicated and disturbing.

Julie Mao, the missing Earth woman Miller has been assigned to find, kidnap, and send home, was part of the crew of Scopuli. They'd stumbled onto someone's very nasty plan to set up a little experiment. As the political situation in the Belt gets rapidly more dangerous, Miller is first pulled off the search for Julie Mao, then fired, then takes off on his own to track her down. The Martian ship is attacked, and destroyed, by heavily armed stealthed ships, and the last thing the Martian commander does is send a couple of officers to get Holden, his crew, and the evidence out and away.

Miller and Holden each separately follow the evidence they have to Eros, and become uneasy allies in the face of a truly evil plot involving a very dangerous, very alien piece of biotechnology. And while Earth, Mars, and the Belt blame each other for the growing incidence of disappeared or destroyed ships and the system rushes headlong toward war, Miller and Holden discover another hand at work, engineering the war as a distraction from what they're really up to.

Attempting to say any more risks far too many spoilers. I'll just add that the politics of the solar system feel real and complex, with no improbably good Good Guys, and legitimate interests and natural greed on all sides.

Leviathan Wakes has all the Good Parts of space opera of the forties and fifties, a lived-in universe, adventure, intrigue, and sense of wonder. At the same time, James S. A. Corey, or rather, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, whose pen name this is, didn't grow up in that era, and write smart, tough, capable female characters with no more apparent conscious effort than when they do the same with male characters. It's apparently the first of a series, The Expanse, but while the set-up for the rest of the series is there, and quite obvious, this particular story is satisfyingly complete in itself. With or without the later volumes, this one is worth reading, and is a lot of fun if you like good space opera.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.