Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey

There are few things in life as enjoyable as a space opera that just focuses on telling a good story.

Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey one of those books.

The first in a series, it can be read as a standalone, but you really should read the others (I’ll be reviewing them in due time).

It tells the story of first contact, essentially. The book opens with a character encountering a strange and deadly alien life-form, and that chapter ends on an ominous note. From there, we meet our two central protagonists for the story, a detective straight out of noir and a captain straight out of seafaring and space-faring tropes along the likes of Firefly and Aubrey/Maturin.

They’re surrounded by a well-rounded and diverse (literally) cast of characters, each with unique and eclectic backgrounds. For the most part, they feel fleshed out and have their own agency, though a couple of secondary characters aren’t quite as memorable as others. Personally, I had a hard time distinguishing Alex and Amos, though not for James SA Corey’s lack of trying. One is a pilot and the other is a mechanic. One is from Mars with a Texan twang and the other is an engineer from Earth. And even as Corey continued to remind readers of this throughout the book, I still kept going, “Wait, which one’s which?” Though that probably speaks to my attention span more than anything else.

Easily the best thing about this book is the feel of the universe. It’s totally believable, with Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets (inhabited by Belters). The Belters have their own patois and sense of priorities. Corey’s world-building is exceptional – interesting and detailed enough but not so much that it distracts from the plot.

The plot is well-paced, and the style of writing feels cohesive (I felt this was worth noting since James SA Corey is actually two people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

If you’re looking for a space opera with intrigue, a well-paced plot, action and mystery, you really can’t do much better than Leviathan Wakes.

Help, My Scene Sucks and I Don’t Know Why

We’ve all been there. We have an idea of a scene we want to write, and we get to the business of putting thought to words. We slave away at it. Maybe it goes smoothly, and suddenly, your story is 2,000 words richer and it was one of those writing sprees that felt effortless.

Or maybe it was one of those days where every single letter that came out was absolute torture, and a measly 350 words later, you finally ground something out before raising your hands with frustration and walking away.

But the writing’s done. The scene’s done. We’re good to go, right?

And then we re-read it. And it’s crap. Utter, pure crap. How the hell did it get that way? What happened to the thing I had in my head? Why is it so miserable on page? The words are fine, there are some lovely sentences in there, but the scene, ugh. Blah. Other indistinct noises.

The worst thing? I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with it. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS SCENE?! There’s nothing obviously bad about it. It just doesn’t do anything for me.

Who here among us hasn’t had that experience?

The good news is that the way to diagnose what’s wrong with a scene is actually pretty simple. The hard part is doing something with it.

For any scene to work, you need 3 things:

  • A want
  • An obstacle
  • A resolution

Want, obstacle, resolution. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, look for those things. This isn’t new or particularly original, I lifted this straight from Jerry Cleaver’s IMMEDIATE FICTION. I highly recommend this book (seriously, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and get it).

Essentially, your character has got to want something. If the scene doesn’t strongly convey what he/she wants, then you have to figure that out.

Secondly, whatever s/he wants, she can’t get it. At least, not easily. There has to be an obstacle in his/her way. The obstacle has to be as great as the desire for it.

Did Captain Ahab find Moby-Dick just off the shore of Massachusetts?

Did Romeo seduce Juliet and live happily ever after?

Did Dorothy call an Uber within minutes of landing in Oz and make her way back to Kansas right away?

No. Of course not.

The other thing you can do with the obstacle is allow your character to get what s/he wants, but use dramatic irony to twist it in a way that makes your character suffer. Remember, when you are a writer, you are a soulless, evil god who exists only to torment your characters until that final moment of satisfaction and resolution at the very end.

Simba from the Lion King just couldn’t wait to be king! So the evil geniuses at Disney made it so – they killed off dear old dad (spoilers, I guess) and suddenly the path to the throne was clear. Immediately, Simba realized he didn’t quite want to be king so quickly, did he? He got what he wanted…just not how he imagined it.

And then there has to be a resolution. Cliffhangers count as a resolution, but remember, a scene has to move the story forward. A resolution brings clarity to the want/obstacle dynamic, and propels the plot forward (unless, of course, we’re talking about the ultimate Resolution, or the end of the book, but that’s another topic for another day).

So there you have it. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, check out the want, obstacle, and resolution. Chances are, the problem with your scene lies with one or more of these things. Make each element as clearly stated as possible, and then the scene will come together much better. You won’t be out of the woods yet, most likely, but you’ll at least be able to diagnose what’s wrong with your scene and work on fixing it.