Cover for Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

The Laconian Empire has fallen, setting the thirteen hundred solar systems free from the rule of Winston Duarte. But the ancient enemy that killed the gate builders is awake, and the war against our universe has begun again.

In the dead system of Adro, Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to understand what the gate builders were and what destroyed them, even if it means compromising herself and the half-alien children who bear the weight of her investigation. Through the wide-flung systems of humanity, Colonel Aliana Tanaka hunts for Duarte’s missing daughter. . . and the shattered emperor himself. And on the Rocinante, James Holden and his crew struggle to build a future for humanity out of the shards and ruins of all that has come before.

As nearly unimaginable forces prepare to annihilate all human life, Holden and a group of unlikely allies discover a last, desperate chance to unite all of humanity, with the promise of a vast galactic civilization free from wars, factions, lies, and secrets if they win.

But the price of victory may be worse than the cost of defeat.

Disclaimer: This review is coming about a week since I finished this book, and I neglected to take notes right after I was done. So note to my future self, my memories are a bit fuzzier than usual with this one. This is exacerbated by the fact that I chose to re-read Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath prior to reading this book, so the narrative has definitely blended together in my head.

With all that said, to get it out of the way: if you haven’t read The Expanse and you’re at all a science fiction fan, just a quick note that you need to go out and start reading Leviathan Wakes right now! The Expanse is undoubtedly one of the finest hard science fiction series out there (and has been adapted into an utterly fantastic TV series as well). I could go on and one about why I feel that way, but quite frankly, that’s pretty well-trod ground at this point.

But, after a ten-year-long journey, this incredible series of books and novellas is finally coming to a close.

Now, full disclosure, I will attempt to avoid major spoilers for this specific book in this review, but it’s going to be tough to avoid that with the previous two books in this trilogy. As a result, if you haven’t read this series at all and think you might, or if haven’t gotten around to reading books seven and eight, then it’s probably best to stop now.

Alright, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get right into it!

I have to admit, after reading and then re-reading Tiamat’s Wrath, it really wasn’t clear to me how they’d bring such an enormous conceptual narrative to a close1. When last we left our heroes, humanity was under the yolk of the Laconian empire, Winston Duarte was mentally AWOL, and it was clear the Goths (as we’d come to know them) were angrily banging at the doors of our universe. Given the Goths pretty effectively wiped out the Ring Builders, it was impossible to believe humanity would have better success in fending them off.

And yet for all that, the plot of Leviathan Falls is in some ways the most straightforward of the series, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Because book nine is focused on closing out the Goth storyline, the more relatable human-level plot elements–the political machinations of the Laconian Empire, the work of the rebels, the dynamic between inners and belters, and so forth–are largely set aside here. If you ask me that’s a real shame, as one of the true strengths of The Expanse is the way it introduces massive, otherworldy events, and then zooms in to show us the individual human reaction to those events2.

And don’t get me wrong, you do get a bit of that, here. But while there’s certainly a variety of point-of-view characters outside the Roci crew and the folks around them, what we largely see is those characters being swept along in the consequences of the narrative, rather than being active participants.

That said, there are some fascinating PoV characters in this book. Tanaka, in particular, is a really interesting addition. As a character she’s probably the least sympathetic in the series aside from maybe Cortazar himself. However, her perspective on the changes imposed on humanity in this book adds a fantastic bit of colour, really hammering home how fundamentally disturbing and evil those changes are3. And yes, I’m being intentionally vague, here.

As for our primary crew, I really enjoyed seeing how our heroes have changed through the course of the narrative.

Beginning with Holden, it’s refreshing to see the authors approach the PTSD that Holden would have inevitably experienced given his history. Seeing him break down and lose his edge made him that much more human and relatable, and made his character arc that much more impactful.

Similarly, throughout this trilogy, it was wonderful to see Naomi exit Holden’s shadow and become powerful in her own right. While I was a little disappointed with the way her journey ended, overall it was fantastic to see her stepping up and asserting herself, demonstrating her single-minded focus and brilliance.

Next, we have Amos, who amazingly had to become less human in order to ultimately find his humanity. When he decided to step up and stop the dives, I cheered, as it was the first time we saw Amos take a stand against something he believed was wrong without first needing to look to Naomi or Holden for moral direction. And that epilogue? Fanastic!

Finally, there’s Alex. I have to admit, I wish we’d gotten more of this wonderful character, as, to my recollection, he was relegated to the background for much of this book. Still, it was certainly nice to see how his character arc closed out. He truly was the beating heart of the Roci crew, and he deserved to find a real home in the end.

Now, as for the Goths versus the Ring Builders, I have to admit, about halfway through the book I was pretty sure how things were going to have to end. I won’t claim I predicted every beat in the plot, but the big picture resolution was no great surprise to me and was really the only one that made sense. That certainly didn’t make the ending any less satisfying–to the contrary, I’m quite impressed by how well the writing team stuck the landing, here. It’s a rare thing to find such a long series that’s so incredibly consistent from start to finish.

What I really appreciated was that the authors didn’t attempt to dive deep into the lore and explain every little bit of what was going on. The story in The Expanse is definitely one where offering hints of the bigger picture–just enough to give the reader a hook into the story in a way that justified the ending, while giving us the feeling that there was a real foundation beneath it all and we weren’t just witnessing with Space Magic4–was by far the more effective approach5.

So, why only four stars? Well, honestly, the plot felt a bit padded in this one. Now, maybe that’s just because I’d come off of books seven and eight, which were both a bit slow to start but were utter rocket rides in the second halves. But Leviathan Falls definitely felt just a bit more pro forma than the others.

That said, I really did enjoy this book, and I’m very much going to miss this series! Fortunately, there’s a whole set of novellas that I haven’t gotten to, yet, so I have no doubt a re-read that includes those instalments is in my future.

  1. In my first draft of this post I used the word “sprawling”, here, but if there’s one thing you can say about the writing team behind James S. A. Corey, it’s that they know how to write a very tightly wound storyline. 

  2. Which, if you ask me, is the mark of great science fiction. 

  3. Though I have to admit, being a Star Trek fan, and having recently read the Aurora Cycle, I am finding the whole humans-absorbed-into-a-collective trope is getting a little bit worn out. I also can’t help but wonder if this trope would be as popular as it is if the western world hadn’t been subjected to the Red Scare

  4. coughStar Warscough… 

  5. The Lord of the Rings, which I recently re-read, does something very similar in that we know Sauron is the Big Bad, but the book doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining it. Rather, you’re told enough (his power is imbued in the ring, destroying it will destroy him) to drive the plot, and the rest is left to the reader’s imagination.