Editorial Notebook

Why you should read Warbreaker and Leviathan Wakes

You should read Warbreaker and Leviathan Wakes together. Although Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker and James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes are wildly different books, their contrast highlights each book’s themes and provides a fascinating perspective on both. This isn’t a single book going to the club alone; these are two books who’ve had time to get to know each other and really compare their stories. Although it’s unlikely you’ll actually read these books in parallel, I hope you'll find at least one of them intriguing enough to pick up.

Warbreaker is a stand alone fantasy novel from the prolific author Brandon Sanderson. In a colorful world brimming with magic and gods, two sisters find their roles reversed as their nation is on the brink of seemingly inevitable war. Leviathan Wakes is a science fiction novel, by James S. A. Corey—the pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Set in a future when humanity has spread into the Solar System, a ship’s crew and a noir detective discover a terrifying alien conspiracy while society descends into war and chaos. Although this is the first of nine books in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes alone tells a satisfying story.

While the plot of Warbreaker revolves around preventing a war as tension between the nations build, in Leviathan Wakes a string of misfortunes and conspiracies descend their world into violence. Watching these contrasting plots play out is incredibly cathartic, which is what initially led me to looking at the pair more closely. In Warbreaker, Siri and Vienna, the princesses of the small nation of Idris, find their lives disrupted as Siri is sent to marry the God King of their powerful rival nation of Halladren in Vienna’s place. Vienna, with her mercenary group inside the city, Siri working through the palace intrigue, and Lightsong—the god who doesn’t believe in his own religion—come together to stop war from erupting. Sanderson’s story is character-focused as each of them grows to fill the roles they need to make a difference. However, in Leviathan Wakes, the engagement comes primarily from the world and the bigger picture. People living on Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt, turn against each other after Earther Captain Holden accuses Mars of destroying his ship under mysterious circumstances. Detective Miller’s case of a young woman’s disappearance collides with Holden and his crew’s investigation as they together uncover an even greater threat. The characters are powerless as their world spins out of control and can only watch as tragedy unfolds. This provides a bitter, but fascinating counterpoint to Warbreaker’s story of hardship paying off in success. Violence breaks out in our world so easily and peace is not always possible.

The writing styles of these books also provide a significant contrast. Although both books address violence and contain gore, the tone is very different. Sanderson’s work includes these topics, but does not dwell on them, having a more positive, hopeful, and wonder-filled tone. Corey’s novel is much grittier and darker with elements reminiscent of the horror genre. The comparison is similar to the difference between violence in Robert Jordan’s writing in The Wheel of Time series and George R. R. Martin’s in A Song of Ice and Fire. Both books are written in third person, switching points of view between their cast of characters, but Warbreaker is strongly character-driven while Leviathan Wakes is plot-driven. Although written at similar times—Warbreaker came out in 2009 and Leviathan Wakes in 2011—Warbreaker follows the very modern trend of strong character focus, where authors prioritize individuals and their character growth as central to the story. But, Leviathan Wakes is written with the narrative focus on larger events and the dynamics between governments and organizations with comparatively static characters. None of these differences set one story above the other; the writing style is purely a matter of preference.

Both Warbreaker and Leviathan Wakes have impeccable worldbuilding that is strongly intertwined with the stories. Sanderson, as he is wont to do, created a vibrant strong magic system called Awakening based around using Breaths, people’s souls, to bring objects to life. The magic is strongly integrated with the cultures and religions of Idris and Halladren and is a complex and engaging part of every page of the novel. In a similar way, the culture, technology, and politics of the world in The Expanse are thoroughly developed and bring an incredible sense of realness to the characters and the world’s conflicts. The cultural difference between Belters and people from the Inner Planets, as well as the presence of the militant Outer Planets Alliance in dissension with the competing governments of Earth and Mars, propel the major conflicts of the novel. Both books explore class struggle with the weaker powers—Idris and the Belt—clash with the seemingly overbearing rulers—Halladren and the Inner Planets. Our point-of-view characters are left to grapple with issues of rebellion and the moral gray of power.

Warbreaker and Leviathan Wakes are compelling fictional stories that I’d highly recommend you read. With each novel, you’ll be drawn in by the engaging worlds and active characters and pulled along by well-written twists. These are incredibly fun stories with a highly-accessible writing style, and I hope you’re interested enough to read at least one of these books.