Friday, December 31, 2021

"Leviathan Falls" by James S.A. Corey--Fiction Review

We’re finishing off my favorite series that I’ve read in the past two years, obscurists. Today we’re talking about “Leviathan Falls” by James S.A. Corey, the ninth and final novel in The Expanse series. Get your anti-aliens from beyond space and time security blankets on because it’s going to get bumpy.

James S.A. Corey

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I have loved this series since about the middle of the first book, “Leviathan Wakes.” I remember diving into the second book immediately after finishing the first because I just had to know where Corey would go after the deeply unsettling setting of Eros. Oh, how things would change since that first novel by the time we get this novel “Leviathan Falls” yet still be so compelling.

I bring that first novel up because one of the chief things I like about this book is how it mirrors the first novel. It’s as if the whole series describes a perfect parabola leading to an ending a lot like the beginning but different—history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. 

The Expanse has always been a pretty intense series, but this novel takes the prize. The stakes could not be higher, and everyone is on edge from beginning to nearly the end. But while its nail-biter of a plot unfolds, “Leviathan Falls” still makes time to chew the fat on some of the biggest ideas in sci-fi.

We also get to see more of a story where Naomi is more in charge overall rather than Holden, which I found interesting. Holden is still captain of the Rocinante, and Naomi is still ostensibly the XO. But, she is also the leader of the underground and resistance against the Laconian empire, which makes her more of an Admiral than just a mere executive officer. The dynamic could lead to tension, but I love how Naomi and Holden have been together for so long that they make it work without a single hiccup to distract from the primary plot.

What I don’t love about this book:

There are a lot of samey metaphors and phrases that come out of different characters’ mouths who aren’t remotely similar or even share similar geography. And sure—I get it—how many ways are there to describe dark gods from beyond space and time or god emperors? But, it feels like it should at least be more than one. It’s a quibble, but for a series that does individual characterization so well, it was disappointing to me that all those wonderful characters—with all their distinct voices and styles—all started sounding the same on literally the most significant issue in this universe. 

I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but “Leviathan Wakes” doesn’t take enough time wrapping up all the loose threads and story arcs of all the major supporting characters introduced in this series. It doesn’t even finish off the stories of all the characters prominent in this novel. It wraps up the story for the main core characters—sorta—well, really only definitively for two characters the others just kind of end, and we never see them again in the narrative.

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Author’s Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

After the battle at Laconia, where the underground led by Naomi Nagata successfully beat the Laconian navy on their own home turf—the crew of the Roci is laying low. Naomi managed to recover her lover and the captain of the Rocinante James Holden during that conflict. Holden also brought with him Teresa Duarte, daughter to Winston Duarte, High Consul of the Laconian Empire. She wanted to escape her father’s empire after his mind was shattered during events before this novel.

Winston Duarte had himself altered using protomolecule technology to give himself inhuman abilities, but it also left him uniquely vulnerable when the aliens that destroyed the creators of the protomolecule—attacked. But he does manage to pull his mind back together—eventually—well, after Laconia’s embarrassing defeat to the underground. He realizes the solution he needs to save humanity from the aliens who live on the third side of the rings that allow humanity to instantly traverse to distant star systems. He soon disappears to complete this mission without explaining anything to his staff.

With the High Consul missing, the admiral in overall command assigns his best colonel to track him down and bring him back to Laconia. Colonel Tanaka is given the keys to the kingdom, told she has carte blanche to do whatever it is she needs to do so long as she brings the High Consul back. She immediately uses her new status and sets out after the Rocinante and crew. She assumes Holden and Nagata will try to get Teresa somewhere safe and deduces that Teresa is the key to finding her father.

Holden does try to drop Teresa off with her cousin—a school teacher—when he and his crew get into a showdown with Tanaka. Overconfident, Tanaka loses the conflict against Holden and crew. She even gets shot in the face by the old starship captain for her trouble. Tough as nails, though, she doesn’t die.

The Rocinante manages to flee the system and eludes Tanaka’s ship for a time, but they get cornered again in another system, one of the underground’s strongholds. The second fight ends in more of a stalemate, which is when Nagata is offered a truce that Tanaka initially tanks. The admiral in charge of the Laconian navy wants to quickly end the conflict with the underground so that all of humanity can focus on the existential threat of the hostile aliens.

The aliens have managed to wipe out a whole star system by this point, killing everyone and everything there instantly.

After the second go-around with Tanaka, the Rocinante manages to flee successfully and throw Tanaka off their scent. But it only happens after something extremely odd happens in the ring space between star systems. The aliens were about to destroy a colony ship when they were suddenly and unexpectedly stopped by some force from the long thought inert ring station in the center of the space.

That’s when the bizarre things start to happen. The force at the ring station is Winston Duarte. He uses the station to gain more power to fight the aliens by psychically fusing all of humanity into one hive mind, which destroys individuality.

In the final fight, all sides not fused into the hive mind, unlikely allies as they are, attempt to stop the high consul from destroying humanity to save it as something different. Holden, Tanaka, and Teresa go to the ring station after Holden infects himself with protomolecule to reason with Duarte.

It doesn’t go well.

In space, Naomi and the crew of the Rocinante lead the remainder of ships not under Duarte’s control to defend the ring station and buy Holden time. Teresa tries to reason with her father, but he ultimately tries to kill her. Holden stops him, and it’s Tanaka who actually kills the High Consul and dies from her wounds shortly after.

With the High Consul dead, Holden takes his place briefly to hold back the hostile aliens and allow everyone time to escape the ring space. Once everyone gets out, he shuts the gates permanently, destroying the ring station and himself—ending the three-sided war. As a result, humanity is spread out throughout the galaxy. But each star system is cut off from all the others.

That is, they are cut off until the epilogue, where a thousand years later, faster than light travel is invented.


Ideologically, “Leviathan Falls” works as a refutation to an old classic sci-fi story called “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke. To me, it seems that there are too many similar story beats that ultimately take the counterpoint to that story for this effect to not be intentional. Both stories focus on a supposed next step in human development, the idea of a hive mind, and concepts such as a benevolent dictator and alien life, which isn’t what it seems.  

What I think is most clever and persuasive about Corey’s subtextual argument for individuality is because it honestly considers Clarke’s position and notes its merits. Ultimately though, the trade-off of all that makes us people—for as flawed or graceful as that can be—to ascend as one singular macro being isn’t worth it because it devalues the individual person to the metaphorical point of errant skin cell.

Moving away from big picture stuff and focusing on a purely nuts and bolts story mechanic thing I was genuinely impressed by was the characterization of Tanaka. I wouldn’t say I grew to like her, and I don’t think you’re supposed to, but I did understand why she was the way she was in the story. Typically, the character would grow somehow, and traditionally that would be the most compelling way to develop her character. Corey surprised me, though, because Tanaka, through sheer intensity, remains compelling throughout the novel despite not learning one single thing. Even after having empathy forced on her, as she starts to fall into the hive mind, she still persists in being the same vicious amoral nut job she always was. And funny enough, that was what was needed for Holden to ultimately save all of humanity from Duarte.

I want to highlight here that empathy was forced on Tanaka, which Corey equated to a kind of intimate assault. Put another way, rape—of the soul, of her very personhood, her agency. That point is Corey’s coup de grĂ¢ce to Clarke’s grand collective hive mind.

Parting thoughts:

It’s been one hell of a ride, riding along vicariously with James S.A. Corey’s Rocinante crew for nine books and various novellas. James S.A. Corey is actually a pen name, by the way, for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It’s just been easier to refer to them as one person throughout this review.

As of right now, “The Expanse” show is still going on in its last season. So far, I’ve loved every episode, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have some serious “Game of Thrones” type anxiety in regards to how it will end.

But since both Abraham and Franck are intimately involved with the show, I still hope. Hopefully, they will make it land as well as the novels.

Or better yet, maybe the Screaming Firehawks pull off another miracle and get that sequel series greenlit.

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