rather good television adaptation they've recently spawned* seem to be very interested in having the argument over whether Leviathan's Wake and its sequels count as Space Opera or not. And maybe I should wait until I've read further into the series before I form my opinion, but I have an early contender for an answer to the question, and that is: it's not. Because it's its own thing, and the two-headed monster that writes as James S.A. Corey already done named it: it's Belter Punk.
At least this first book is. There are hints throughout, of course, that the series as a whole is going to have that galactic sweep and scale and sense of awe and alienness that people go to Space Opera for, but this book right here, this is Belter Punk, which within the text of the novel refers to a genre of (presumably) grungy and loud and unlovely but passionate music favored by residents of the asteroid belt/minor planets out between Mars and Jupiter, where they live inside hollowed-out rocks and aren't quite self-contained but sure do try but meanwhile they're still dependent on Earth and Mars and various shipping vessels to make sure they don't run out of air or water. It's an unglamorous life out there in the Sol system, and the people who have adapted to it have gotten a tad strange, and not just because a general lack or low level of gravity have made them tall and skinny and big-headed and knobby-jointed and a tad resentful.
But so it's mostly Belters we're dealing with, here at the beginning of the Expanse series, chiefly in the persons of James Miller and Naomi Nagata, he a terse, embittered gumshoe straight out of a Dashiell Hammet, she a tech wiz who starts out her novel-life serving on the crew of a space-freighter hauling water to Ceres, the minor planet in/on which Miller has spent his whole life...
But there are planetary types, too, out there among them, including Earther Jim Holden, the Executive Officer of the freighter on which Naomi serves, who grew up in some kind of official polyamorous group marriage in Montana and was supposed to take over/save the family's ranch there someday but instead headed for outer space; Amos Burton, also an Earther, and a smarter and more useful (and even more quotable) version of Jayne Cobb if ever there was one, who serves as a mechanic on the freighter; Alex Kamal, he of East Indian descent and Texas accent that mark him out as a guy who grew up on Mars and quite the pilot; and Fred Johnson, he of the colorful military past who is now the somewhat shady "unofficial prime minister" of the Outer Planets Alliance.**
It's a not-too-surprising combination of noir detective plot (enacted by Miller) and a mystery/assassination/perils of Pauline plot (enacted by the freighter crew) that bring them all into each other's orbits, as both investigations eventually lead the parties to the same place, where they make a creepy and potentially system-shattering discovery involving the secret origins of one of Saturn's moons and a nasty "protomolecule" that is a sort of weaponized version of the noocytes of Blood Music (Greg Bear) fame.
There are lots of space battles and starship chases and space station explosions and squicky evil to enjoy as the plot tosses the characters around, making this a fun as well as a politically interesting read, but what really sold me on it was the character of Miller, the washed-up detective who is tossed a case that's pretty much meant to be unsolvable but decides to give it his all anyway, with melancholy as well as explosive results. He's in every way a literary cliche that should make one yawn, but his background as a guy born and raised in space gives him just enough freshness to make all that old, sad stuff feel new again. And I'm not just talking about the fungal whiskey he drinks (though maybe more than a bit is due to what watchers of the TV series have waggishly dubbed the "Space Fedora of Justice" even though it is very clearly named several times in the text as a porkpie and not a fedora, but anyway). His story is absorbing enough on its own, but when it becomes entertwined with those of the freighter crew members, it all gets wonderfully complex, until there is a moment when the essential natures of Miller and Holden so perfectly clash and transform each other, and with that the plot, and I just sort of sat there stunned for a while and had to stop reading and unpack more boxes (I recently moved to a new house).
I have no idea if the other four books in the series so far are going to hold my attention as well as this one did because of [REDACTED], but the way my Own Dear Personal Mother is tearing through them (she's already on the fifth novel and sort of tapping her foot at me, but hey, she still hasn't read any of the Song of Ice and Fire yet, just seen the TV show, so, you know, that.) I'd say it's an even money bet at what's left of the casino on Eros that they will. I've already started on Caliban's War...
*And yes, once again, the TV people caught me flat-footed. I've had this series on my to-read radar for years now, but kept getting distracted by shinies, and now they've gone and made the first half-or-so of this novel and chunks of later ones into a whole season of high-quality TV! It's The Last Kingdom all over again. D'oh!
**One of several factions rubbing up against each other and not-quite-fighting over resources in this human-settled Solar System, with Earth and Mars the inner planet superpowers, the Belt a somewhat chaotic mess of colonial outposts and outright corporate properties, and the at-times seemingly terroristic Outer Planets Alliance, aka OPA serving as a catch-all for further flung outposts' interests and meddling a good bit in the affairs of the Belt, too. Which is to say that if you don't like a lot of political plottery in your sci-fi, these books might not turn out to be your favorites, but I'd still give them a try for the reasons I've outlined above.