Book cover: Leviathan Wakes - James S A Corey (a spaceship nearing an asteroid)There’s a secret being kept in the outer reaches of the Belt – a secret worth killing for. Soon a washed-up detective from Ceres and a ramshackle salvage crew will find themselves at the heart of a system-wide conspiracy that could shatter the uneasy peace between Earth, Mars and the Belt. If only they could stop asking awkward questions…

Where to start with this epic space opera? Until recently, I’d heard of it but had no particular urge to catch up with it – I vaguely thought I might just watch the show – but we all know how well I resist a read-along! And I’m terribly glad I did, as this is one of those non-stop rollercoasters that keeps you gripped from start to finish.

It begins with a taut, traumatic prologue (honestly, keeping this review spoiler free is practically impossible given the sheer number of twists as the plot develops, but I WILL DO IT) that won me over to its beleaguered heroine’s point of view in mere sentences and then pulled the rug out from under me. So – and I’ll try to make this my only spoiler, because frankly I wish I’d been warned – the (body) horror is strong with this one.

Without pausing for breath, we bound on into the main narrative, split between hard-boiled noir courtesy of Detective Joe Miller – alcoholic, divorced, partnered with the goddamn Earther – stationed on Ceres; and non-stop space action courtesy of Jim Holden – ex-military, bad with authority, hopeless romantic and all-round idealist.

Without much ado – and surprisingly little exposition (the advantage of having a cop as a main character: context is important to his case) – the future is laid out for us: Earth has colonised Mars and the Belt, and the (moons of the) outer planets are a source of food, water and energy. Political tensions are high, with independent Mars possessed of the best military, Earth still possessed of the biggest military and most of the money, and the cantankerous Belters determined to declare independence sooner or later – with a guerrilla organisation (the Outer Planets Alliance) that specialises in increasing tensions through inciting disorder and occasionally blowing things up.

The Belt is both a melting pot (I adored how the background was so casually diverse, with every kind of food, music and heritage in evidence) and a powder keg. It’s a brilliantly detailed setting, and for all I’m not a big fan of the Wild West feel to Ceres, I loved the cynicism that underpins it. It’s the corporations that own the Belt – and the money all flows back to Earth. Even the cops are actually corporate security, their morality a reflection of budgets, kickbacks and the latest requirements from Head Office.

The secret lurking out in the Belt is the match that can light everything up. But with an obsessive cop and an angry idealist chasing it down from opposite directions, things escalate quickly – and some secrets are so big they’re impossible to hide. Once it gets going, Leviathan Wakes never lets up. The scope is enormous – from political intrigue to questions of ethics to good old-fashioned adventure – and deftly handled from start to finish.

There’s also some solid craft on display; from Holden’s very first chapter I could see the ship and had to admire the economy with which Corey introduced its crew, quickly establishing characters and relationships (SPOILER (mouse over to read) although it’s no surprise that someone so closely associated with George R R Martin creates a strong impression purely so he can make you feel bad when it all goes south on the next page).

Which brings me to my only real problem with the book (and it’s not a biggy): it’s men all the way down. Julie Mao is irresistible, but after the prologue she’s the centre of the swirling plot, not one of the narrative point of view. Naomi is just plain fabulous, but she’s the only woman in the crew and basically a sidekick (although when she finally steps into her new role on Eros – and dresses Holden down for something I’d been growling about for several chapters – I was cheering in my chair).

It’s not that Miller and Holden are bad men – although for the first third they’re little better than cardboard cut-outs of well-established archetypes – it’s just that I like having more women in my narrative (and it’s worth noting they’re well-represented in the background; just not in front of the camera). And because it does take a while for Miller and Holden to develop (whereas Julie and Naomi leap off the page from the very start), it’s all the more frustrating. Thankfully, I did warm up to them – and ended up liking both of them a lot.

More to the point, the plot was engaging enough from the start that I wasn’t going to be putting the book down any time soon anyway. I’m promised a wealth of excellent female characters to come, but for those who share my dismay at male-dominated narratives, I can only say it’s worth sticking with it for its own sake – this is an excellent read. And regardless of future promises (I’m also told the sequel will address my world-building issues with sushi), there was no question of me walking away at the end of Leviathan Wakes. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger – it’s a satisfying, stand-alone tale – but there are enough big implications left over that I can’t wait to see how they get explored.

****

I read Leviathan Wakes as part of @sffreadalongs. My weekly discussion posts (unabashedly spoilertastic, be warned) can be found here: Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4