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James S.A. Corey
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Leviathan Wakes: Book One of the Expanse series

Leviathan Wakes - James S.A. Corey I complained in my review of Chasm City that the gee-whiz mechanics of space opera can't really sustain a 600-page narrative. It turns out I was perhaps incorrect: most of the lengthy examples I've sampled in the sub-genre (Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks) are of the "dark and gritty" variety, grim, nihilistic visions of the future starring amoral asshole protagonists who are impossible to sympathize with. Even with a bunch of cool ideas on display, spending 700 pages in these books is exhausting. Inevitably, I like them for about 400 pages and then I just... get tired.But this book... this is the space opera I want to read. This book has the spirit of the genre's early days, characters who still marvel at the impossible immensity of the stars, but it isn't a pastiche or a throwback -- it's a natural evolution, and a remarkably satisfying one. The closest analogue I can think of is the oft-overpraised television show Firefly. Say what you will about the annoyingly zealous fanbase (or don't, you don't need the hate email); that show really did almost everything right in translating space opera to the modern age. The characters are complex, they operate in a world that is more grey than black & white, but each also has a clear moral center, so we know why they do the things they do, even when they are terrible things. You can make space opera (or epic fantasy or whatever) that is "dark" and "gritty" and still fun to read, with characters that are fun to read about. Because why would you want to explore the stars with assholes?I'm having some trouble locking the tractor beam on my point here, but it basically comes down to this: if you want me to invest in your lengthy space epic, you better give me something more to care about than magic space technology macguffin crap, because I will get sick of that. This book gave me cool ideas and everything else: archetypal characters that nevertheless manage to be compelling and sympathetic, interesting and very well thought out politics and economics, constant narrative momentum without sacrificing character... It's the most fun I've had reading sci-fi in a long time.I should have expected nothing less of Daniel Abraham, who is one-half of the pseudonymous James S.A. Corey; earlier this year, I gushed about the way he was able to do basically all the same stuff within the confines of the epic fantasy genre. And there is so much to like about the premise, just on the face of it: it's a few hundred years from now. Humanity has colonized Mars and invented an engine that allows fairly speedy travel, to a point. Our solar system has been colonized, with outposts on the moons of Saturn and spread across the asteroid belts, but we've gone no further because, come on, space is freaking huge and what are the chances we're going to invent warp drive and quickly stumble across the other needles in the galactic haystack? Besides, we've got enough to keep ourselves busy: colonizing space hasn't exactly united humanity, and Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance operate under an uneasy truce, with heavy prejudices on all sides.This stuff is very well thought out. People in the outer planets have lived for generations free from the constraints of heavy gravity, and have started to differ physically from Earthers. Language and culture have shifted too. This makes racism easier. Meanwhile the sheer logistical challenges of sustaining life on dead rocks (from mining interstellar ice to diets of food manufactured from algae) mean the "Belters" are still beholden to their terrestrial cousins.The plot is a potboiler, effectively combining space action with a noir murder mystery (the two storylines intertwined in chapters that alternate between two POV characters). The characters are, like I said, broad types in some ways, but you can do broad types very well; a stock character can still be well rounded and compelling. This book manages to star both a world-weary detective and an idealistic space captain (with a smart-mouthed love interest and some wise-cracking ship's crew in the background) and not feel like a retread, to give the characters tough moral choices (and sometimes they make the wrong ones), without turning them into unrepentant sociopaths. It goes back to what I was saying many, many paragraphs ago about honoring conventions while expanding upon them. I don't know if I am communicating this very well, but this book is all of that and also just impossible to stop reading. It's also funny without trying too hard, and thoughtful without being overly constructed or preachy. It's the book I have been looking for every time I picked up a space epic. I just didn't know until I found it.