End of an Era: Review of Leviathan Falls, by James S. A. Corey

            Ending a story is always difficult, a difficulty that is only increased when the story is spread across a series.  Whether is it a book series, television show, or movie franchise, the prospect of crafting an ending that will both satisfy and engage fans can be terrifying.  The danger is somewhat mitigated by going into a story already knowing your ending, just having to fill out in the middle sections in between the first page and the last.  In some works, readers or watchers can tell when the creator did not plan for an ending, a phenomenon mostly found in shows.  But, other times, it is clear that the author has a plan for the story, and it can be incredibly satisfying to see that author stick to the plan and deliver a satisfying ending.  However, even with a plan for an ending, every author knows that it can still be difficult to create a loved ending, especially when the story in question has risen to such great heights.

            Leviathan Falls is the ninth and final book in The Expanse, a modern masterpiece of science-fiction that began in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes.  Since it’s inception, James S. A. Corey (the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has released a book nearly annually, taking 2020 off.  In 2015, the series was adapted in a television format, The Expanse, which eventually found a home on Amazon Prime.  Coincidentally, the show also ended around the same time the final book was released. This is the rare book series where each novel improves on the previous, building a continuous story while developing the characters in ways that are both interesting and make sense to the reader.  The series was known for its realistic portrayal of space travel throughout the solar system, and beyond, where a spacecraft accelerating too quickly could be exceedingly dangerous the crew inside.  This is a near future without science-fiction staples such as artificial gravity or inertial dampeners.  Pair the engaging use of technology with a fascinating look at future politics, where the main sources of conflict are Earth and an independent Mars, both exerted control over the rest of humanity scattered among moons, asteroids, and space stations.  Even as the more fantastical aspect of science-fiction came the forefront—ancient alien civilizations, wormholes to other galaxies, beings from another universe—the books never forgot that the characters, and their development, always came first.

            Leviathan Falls picks up not long after the end of the previous novel in the series, Tiamat’s Wrath.  At the end of the eighth book, the Laconian Empire is left in tatters after being hit by a combination war with Naomi Nagata’s underground resistance forces, and the ancient enemies of the Ring Builders wiping out every piece of matter in the Slow Zone, disappearing everyone inside.  The ninth book picks up with the crew of the Rocinante—James Holden, Naomi, Amos Burton, and Alex Kamal—finally together again, along with new crew member Teresa Duarte, the teenage daughter of Laconian high consul Winston Duarte, who was left in a vegetative state.  Immediately in the story, Duarte is able to pull his consciousness back together, although he has been irreparably changed by his prolonged exposure to the protomolecule.  A large part of the plot revolves around trying to find him, and then trying to find a way to stop his plans.  As hinted by the title of the book, things are looking dire right from the start.  The crew of the Roci is older and feeling the exhaustion, the dark gods beyond the slow zone have stepped up their attacks, experimenting with different types of assault, and ring transit protocols have disintegrated without Laconia enforcing them.  As such, more and more ships disappear as everyone is too busy struggling to realize humanity’s fate is under threat.

            One strength of The Expanse series has always been the shifting perspectives.  Every book features a number of point-of-view characters, with each chapter being told from the eyes of one such character.  Oftentimes, this is used to show readers what is happening in different parts of the story while also providing multiple perceptions on the events transpiring.  In the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, there were only two such characters—James Holden and Miller.  While they eventually came together, the two halves started that novel as very different types of stories.  Miller was the hard-boiled detective, while Holden received the more traditional science-fiction thriller adventure.  In the final novel, like previous ones, the number of POV characters is well beyond two.  Holden returns, joining Naomi, Alex, and Teresa on board the Roci, while Elvi Okoye’s chapters focus around her research into the protomolecule and its creators.  In a smaller role, Alex’s son Kit offers a look at the life of a civilian in his brief appearances.  Only Amos does not receive any POV chapters due him maybe not being Amos anymore, having been rebuilt by the protomolecule’s repair drones after dying in the last book.  As this series has shown, you can only get the full story by seeing it through multiple sets of eyes.

            Every POV character already mentioned has featured in previous books, with the crew of the Roci having been fixtures from the very beginning.  If anyone could be said to be the main character of this series, it would be James Holden.  However, Leviathan Wakes introduces one new character to join the others as a main POV character, and we end up spending a lot of time where throughout the story.  Colonel Aliana Tanaka is a member of the Laconian navy, and one of the original Martians to have followed Winston Duarte through the ring gates several books ago, although this is her first in-story appearance.  Corey introduces her and develops her by showing interesting parallels to the Rocinanate crew.  She is a risk taker like Holden, intelligence like Naomi, violent like Amos, but always stable and in control.  When we first meet her, it is during a tryst with a junior officer, something she knows could result in serious consequences for her.  But the threat of those consequences is what gets her off, and we see this pattern of behavior repeat as she is quickly given blanket permission to recover Duarte at all costs and bring him back to Laconia.  She is both the perfect Laconian soldier and the complete opposite of their ideals, a contradiction she seemingly revels in.  In a way, Tanaka can be seen as the shadow of what Bobbie Draper represented in previous installments.  While her presence in the story is certainly antagonistic, she ends up becoming integral to the plot while allowing Corey to really delve into how the events of the story are psychologically affecting the characters and why that matters.

            While I could take the time to review the writing style or the plot progression or the pacing of Leviathan Falls, the only thing that really matters is that this feels like part of The Expanse series.  It is a difficult thing to describe, but readers of the series, or watchers of the show, will understand.  There is a certain feeling that the series evokes and, for all the changes and plot points, this final book still feels like the same series.  Like the crew of the Rocinante, it is older, has seen some shit, and is ready to go home, but it is still fundamentally the same series as when it started.  This is unequivocally a good thing.  Some other series can rush the ending, trying to wrap up plot threads or over explain everything that has happened, wrapping up the story is too neat a bow.  But Leviathan Falls is not that kind of ending.  True to the overall story, we only see conjecture and theories as to why the dark gods beyond ring space act like they do.  We learn some of the history of the ring builders, but there is not enough time for the characters to find all the secrets.  Things are not neat, but they never are in The Expanse.  Corey understands that real people, and real events, are messy.  Going into this final book expecting answers to every lingering question is a fool’s errand, because that has never been the point of the series.  The characters, like us, are only human after all.

            While The Expanse book series was busy redefining what science-fiction could look like, its television adaptation served as the perfect example of why science-fiction works so well on the screen.  It certainly helped that Corey was heavily involved in the creation of the show and continued working on it until the finale last year.  While some other works of science-fiction were more concerned with the plot or examining technology, The Expanse is primarily a human story.  It puts its characters front and center and always pushes their development forward.  All the while crafting an incredibly engaging plot and building a fascinating and thorough fictional world both strange and recognizable.  The Expanse was a high in the world of science-fiction, and, while it will be missed, it will certainly not be forgotten.

Leviathan Falls can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 15 days

Next on the List: Hunt the Stars, by Jessie Mihalik

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