This review was originally written in February of 2017.
Nemesis Games, more than the other books of The Expanse series, is a novel about isolation. Each of our protagonists from the crew of the Rocinante are separated from one another throughout the bulk of the story, all of them longing to return to the family they realize themselves to be for each other. In the midst of an insurgency from a radical wing within the OPA (supplied by a treasonous, escapist faction of the Mars Navy), we witness periods of combat and senseless devastation from multiple angles that weren’t present in the previous novels with nearly this sort of depth and insight. As an added bonus the reader even gets to witness the grand acts of terrorism from within and without, while not providing anything particularly sympathetic where the terrorists are concerned. It was a bold, and well-executed move by the authors…to humanize the perpetrators of unparalleled acts of aggression without making the reader feel like they might have a valid reason to do the horrible things they are doing. This was a smaller scale piece of storytelling than the galaxy-spanning, alien technology oriented action of the previous novels, but it was a very satisfying exploration of the inner worlds of the characters we’ve become so close to over the course of the previous four books. The end does set the stage for something potentially horrifying coming up though, and it certainly kept me invested enough that I want to read the sixth installment.
This review was originally written in July of 2016.
Halfway through another book it dawns on me that I neglected to write up a brief review for Cibola Burn by fictional author James S.A. Corey…and that was silly of me. With the fourth installment of The Expanse series, the previous novel’s full blown space opera narrative leads us to a story that takes place almost exclusively on an unfamiliar planet an unknown distance from Earth. Human nature takes its natural course when early settlers from the devastated Europa base established a colony on the new planet prior to a joint corporate/scientific exploration colony arrives under charter from Earth government. Terrorist acts from the settlers and attempts to establish authoritarian control by the newly arrived corporate interests produce a tense and untenable relationship that prompts the governments of Earth and the outer planets to send James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante through the gate and to this planet to serve as a mediator. The whole thing goes about as well as anyone familiar with the previous three books would expect. The shame about this book is that, much like the scientific personnel who arrived, I didn’t get nearly enough opportunity to explore the planet. It’s a planet which has been geoengineered by the godlike aliens who had created the protomolecule that led to the gate from our solar system into the realm where hundreds of other gates lead to systems with hundreds of other planets. Containing presumably it’s own biodiversity combined with organic machines developed by the disappeared aliens, it would have been a fascinating planet to have experienced in greater depth. That is my only dissatisfaction with the book, and realistically the authors couldn’t have actually written the sort of detail I would have liked without including an actual xenobiology textbook along with the story…and I suspect most people would have been far less inclined to read it if that were the case.
The reviews for these two books were originally written in April of 2016.
Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) picks up not altogether too long after the final, captivating events of Leviathan Wakes and it smoothly carries on with the story of the relatively near-future narrative that is The Expanse. The absence of Miller from the story is made up for in large part by a Holden who has become more like the detective than he would have thought possible judging by how harshly he had criticised Miller’s methodology and personality during the first novel. This internally conflicted characteristic makes Holden a more interesting and substantial protagonist than he was in the first book though it does produce some difficulties on board the Rocinante. Fans of the television show would be gratified to see Chrisjen Avasarala finally making her appearance in the literary version of The Expanse. Though she is more vulgar in the book than in SyFy’s adaptation, the core of the character is there…a ruthless and often cold political force to be reckoned with who manages to compartmentalize her personal and professional lives with impressive skill. The new characters added into the narrative are well-developed and easily as interesting as those from the first novel, which is something I hope they can keep up through the additional books in this series (including the ones as yet unwritten). It says something about the intense and dangerous nature of the events unfolding in this book that an alien biological machine terraforming Venus according to entirely unknown programming takes a backseat in the minds of the characters and that same dismissal carries over to the reader…at least until the end, when it can no longer be ignored. I am very much looking forward to reading the next installment after the way this one ends and I am even more so looking forward to seeing how the television adaptation will tackle things as the events of this book make it onto the screen during either the latter portion of season two or the beginning of season three depending on how they put everything together.
Abaddon’s Gate takes The Expanse series through the first tentative steps toward becoming a full-fledged, interstellar space opera. From this point on in the series, humanity will no longer be confined to the solar system we’re all too familiar with and the surrounding void between our local system and other stars. This is, surprisingly, the first time religion really gets brought into the books…and there is quite a bit of it, as well there should be. This is a series of novels that is largely predicated on first contact, and that would damn well shake up religious thought all over the world. Not only are we dealing with first contact, but first contact with an unknown species that was around billions of years before we came down from the trees and who have the ability to manipulate matter and energy in ways we have only ever imagined possible. We stumbled upon something truly alien to us, waiting out at the edges of our solar system and disastrously attempted to weaponize it because, of course we would…we’re notoriously short-sighted and impulsive when it comes to thinking up ways to kill one another in real life and the odds of that changing over the hundreds of years separating us from the fictional future of The Expanse are pretty slim…and if none of this had an impact on us as far as theology is concerned, these books would require far too much suspension of disbelief. By the time Abaddon’s Gate starts off, there is a giant ring structure (assembled on Venus by an alien intelligence before lifting from that planet’s surface) between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, looming there and just waiting for us to cross the threshold…and it stands to reason that Holden would be one of the first to cross over into somewhere truly awe inspiring in what it represents. Along with the novelty of having a religious perspective tossed into the mix we get a whole new cast of characters to populate the narrative since Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are the only major ones carried over from the previous novels into this one…and none of them feel like throwaway bit parts, which is something the authors have excelled at so far through the series. This third volume of the series answers a number of questions that have been collecting since the first novel, but it certainly adds just as many new ones that will hopefully be just as exciting to answer in reading what follows.
Leviathan Wakes is, without a doubt, the beginning of something amazing. I have the next two books in the series and I am looking forward to reading those as well as the additional novels I don’t own yet. I owned this book for about three years without ever picking it up from my book shelf (I had pretty much forgotten about it) and I may have continued to neglect it were it not for The Expanse being produced by SyFy. Sadly, I watched the first season of the series before reading this novel and I don’t like doing that…but I don’t feel like it was detrimental in any way. I’d like to discuss a couple of the differences for those who have only either read the book or seen the television show before I do anything else. There are some pretty dramatic differences between the book and the series, the biggest being that the first season ends about 3/5 of the way through the narrative of the first novel, which is something I truly hope SyFy addresses with the second season since there is a lot going on in that third act of the story. The other major difference between the book and the television series is that we aren’t introduced to the political environment and maneuvering taking place on Earth in the novel, though I appreciate that additional subplot from the show and actually kind of wish it had been part of the book. Beyond that, the differences are really quite minimal, some characters who don’t quite line up between the two mediums (either because of descriptions that don’t match up with the casting for the series or because the personalities/interactions are just a little bit off) and a couple of plot points that play out a touch differently or occasionally in different sequence…but those aren’t as troubling as they could be. Written by James S.A. Corey (a fictional person, really the collaboration between Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), this is one hell of an ambitious novel, successfully weaving space opera, militaristic science fiction, and noir mystery into an exciting, intense, and sometimes even scary tapestry. The stated goal of the authors was to fill in the gap that is almost always present where science fiction is concerned. Typically we either end up with near-future cyberpunk or dystopian stories or distant future space operas and the like taking place after we have spread throughout the galaxy or even the universe itself. This book (and presumably the whole series) provides the reader with a suitably rich and detailed vision of what we have between those intervals, during the time when we are still colonizing our own solar system and only just considering setting our sights further into what we have beyond our galactic neighborhood. The interactions between Miller and Holden (as well as their separate storylines) are fantastic and well-written enough that the two protagonists really do provide vastly different lenses through which the same events are being experienced. We see a lot of that in The Expanse, but there is a lot of subtext that gets lost in translation between the two mediums. After reading this book I am determined to pick up some of Daniel Abraham’s fantasy novels, which I might have ended up doing anyhow. The man is an excellent author and Ty Franck clearly learned a thing or two while working for George R.R. Martin where grand, sweeping narratives and visceral (almost punishing) inevitability in narratives are concerned. Whether you have already seen The Expanse or simply want to read an excellent science fiction novel, I have to recommend reading Leviathan Wakes.