Recently, I've been thinking I was probably the only person in sff fandom who hadn't read The Expanse novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) - particularly following the success of the TV series based on them, which I have been watching and enjoying. But then the series showed up on the Hugo nominee list, and the second season of the series ended with some of my favourite characters in really hard-to-wait-for cliffhanger situations, so, I have two very good reasons to read the series.
The first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes, is an interesting mix of classic space opera, hard-boiled detective noir, and political thriller. Given its beginnings as an MMORPG, it's not surprising that the worldbuilding is complex and detailed. The politics - from the unified Earth government to the rebellious Belter-based OPA - are well developed and realistic, and the places - Earth, a partly terraformed Mars, Lunar settlements, communities of anywhere from thousands to millions of inhabitants wormed into asteroids, and facilities on several of the outer planet moons - are fully realised, distinct entities, with their own characters, cultures, backgrounds and goals.
Navigating all of this is the hardest-luck group of misfit spacers I've seen in a long time. Before we're more than a few chapters in, James Holden, former XO of a belt-based ice-hauler and his faithful companions Naomi, Amos and Alex have had two ships blown to bits around them, inherited a state of the art battleship that's going to make them magnets for risky ventures, and stumbled into a mysterious secret that will tear apart the fragile balance of power of the entire solar system. Later on, they are joined - for a while - by Miller, a cynical cop on the way down obsessed with a missing woman named Julie Mao who just happens to be a key part of the mystery that's haunted - or cursed - Holden and his crew.
That mystery is an alien organic substance capable of manipulating biomass according to its internal programming - whatever that might have been. Seeded inside an icy rock two billion years ago by an unknown civilisation and sent to land on earth for reasons unknown, it ended up instead in orbit around Saturn when its vehicle was captured by gravity and became the satellite that humans would call Phoebe. It is eventually found and exploited by by Protogen Corporation - who named it the protomolecule - who hope to develop it into a salable weapon. Their 'research' ultimately leads to the deaths - or something perhaps worse - of millions of Belter 'test subjects' - among them, Julie Mao - in an attempt to understand and change the protomolecule's programming.
As Holden, his crew, and Miller follow the trail and learn more about the protomolecule and the actions of Protogen, the mission becomes not just keeping all-out war from erupting across the solar system, but protecting humanity from the the alien protomolecule and those who want to use it fir their own purposes.
The plot is tight and full of twists and excitement, the authors take care to seem scientifically plausible, and the action set-pieces are varied and imaginative. Where the book falls down is in characterisation and writing. There are some moments where the essence of the characters shines through, but it's infrequent and inconsistent. And the writing is for the most part pedestrian, at times even a touch clunky.
The story is so far more than enough to keep me reading, and wanting to know where it's all going, but the getting there sometimes feels a bit like slogging. I'm hoping that the later novels will be a bit improved in terms of technique, because I'm hooked on the plot.