While being a fan of well-written, hard science fiction, it has always been tough for me not to love a good space opera. The “good” part of that tends to be the hitch. The most enjoyable ones I have had the pleasure of reading include Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (debatable whether or not this is actually space opera), and a number of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Most recently, I have had a difficult time getting into Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series and gave up on Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series after the first book. I did not even get 150 pages into Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Suns.
So when Leviathan Wakes popped onto the scene last summer, I was hesitant. It took a good six months for the internet to convince me that I absolutely had to read this novel and I think it mostly lived up to the hype. Caliban’s War was a spectacular follow-up that improved upon almost everything in Leviathan Wakes.
What makes this novel remarkable is the world-building. Science fiction series tends to be either focused on Earth and a near future or a fairly distant future (or if not that, a near future that is very different). Space operas in particular tend to be somewhat far-flung across space, time, and different races/aliens discovered. The only notable exception I am coming up with off the top of my head is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. The Expanse Universe (the setting for Leviathan Wakes and its sequel, Caliban’s War) takes place in between, where mankind has mastered the solar system, but not the stars beyond. This is a point highlighted by the authors (James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and their effort really comes through. There is an emphasis on biological adaptations to outer space, high G space travel, and the physical characteristics of living in space stations on moons and asteroids. It is the type of stuff that is often overlooked by run of the mill space opera.
The plot elements of both books consist of noir mystery/horror, politics, and military action/adventure. Leviathan Wakes does this combination well, but Caliban’s War blows it out of the water with compelling characters that represent many of these elements without being complete caricatures.
If Leviathan Wakes had a weakness, it was some issues with the characterization of the two lead protagonists. At some points, it was fairly obvious that two different authors were writing the two different narratives throughout the novel. It worked well before the characters’ paths intersected because the characters were meant to have different lives that shape their outlook, mission, and manner of handling situations. When the chapters involved both characters but the narrative mostly focused on one of the characters, the momentum was a bit more inconsistent. In Caliban’s War, there are more main characters with narratives, but the characterizations are significantly tighter and more consistent.
I think one part that is often overlooked is accessibility. Science fiction, for all its presence in all forms of media, is not an easy genre to get into in the print medium. I doubt the Corey duo sat down and decided to make the books accessible, but these books are exactly that without sacrificing too much in the way of realism. The noir elements and the not-inconceivable solar system settings are welcoming in this respect. Highly recommend for anybody looking for good novels to bite into for the end of summer.