The Expanse Book Series
by James S. A. Corey
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Leviathan Wakes / Caliban's War / Abaddon's Gate / Cibola Burn / Nemesis Games
The Expanse is the collective name for a series of novels and shorter works, a collaboration by two different writers using a pen name. James S. A. Corey is actually Daniel Abraham, before this primarily a fantasy writer, and Ty Franck, who has only one other story to his credit so far, but he has also worked as an assistant to George R. R. Martin. Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in the sequence. It was nominated for both a Hugo and a Locus Award in 2012. It rightly belongs in the SF sub-genre of "space opera." They do take some liberties with scientific principles, primarily concerning space ship orbital and propulsion mechanics, but that can be overlooked due to the fast-paced action and interesting plot, along with several well-drawn and sympathetic characters. It's a relatively long book, almost 600 pages in paperback, but a quick and satisfying read. I am definitely looking forward to the continuation of this series. I've recently re-read it (June 2015), to refresh my memory before reading the second book, as well as anticipating the upcoming TV series due later this year on the Syfy network. I decided to combine reviews of the different books, so I had to change the URL of the original Leviathan Wakes review, as well as editing a few comments in this section.
Along with being an amalgamation of SF and fantasy themes, there is also the element of a mystery. One of the main characters is a detective, and his side of the story is reminiscent of the noir style of that branch of literature. It is set several hundred years in the future, and most of the action takes place in the asteroid belt and beyond. Minimal settlements had already been established on Luna and Mars, then a revolutionary new fusion drive was perfected that allowed the colonization of several of the larger asteroids, as well as some moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There is a major rivalry between Earth and Mars even though they are technically allies, but each has their own autonomous military fleet and troops. Both of them look down on the "Belters," viewing them as merely the working class. Belters consider themselves superior since they are the ones who have perfected the skills and techniques that keep the mining operations functional. Due to these and other conflicts, the story also has an undertone of political and social discourse. Oh, and one other thing. It's also a horror story.
The largest of the asteroids, Ceres (actually now considered a dwarf planet), is the major shipping port in the Belt. It has been tunneled, hollowed out, and set to spin at a greater velocity to create a higher gravity for the millions of people who live inside it. One of those inhabitants is Detective Miller (I may be mistaken, but I don't think we ever found out his first name. [EDIT: We do in a later book]). He works for Star Helix Security, essentially Ceres' police force, but they are contracted by an Earth corporation that has major mining and shipping operations in the Belt. Another major character is James Holden, an Earther, a former Naval officer but now the XO on an ice freighter, which makes regular runs bringing water from Saturn's rings back to the Belt. A third character brings the two of them together, although Miller doesn't actually meet Juliette Mao until the very end of the book. She is the subject of the brief prologue, but even though she is a major character as far as the plot is concerned, she only inhabits the rest of the book in the thoughts and imagination of Detective Miller. Her parents on Earth are rich and influential, and Miller is assigned to find her and return her to her family since they fear for her safety when they suspect she has become a member of OPA, the Outer Planets Alliance. Inner planet governments consider OPA to be a terrorist organization.
I don't want to talk more about the plot, except to say it is unique, fascinating and satisfying on all levels. But the true strengths of the novel are the characters and the worlds and ships they inhabit. The "world-building" here is solid, lived-in, believable, easily visualized. The characters are real and act logically in most instances. All good SF is as much about the characters as it is the plot, and this is a perfect example. Although written in third person, every other chapter switches the perspective from Miller and Holden's activities, and that continues even when they meet and interact for several chapters roughly halfway through the book. I identified with Holden, but most people will probably think Miller is more sympathetic. Julie Mao is someone I wanted to learn more about, but we only know what Miller discovers during the course of his investigation and search for her. In spite of that, the memory of her will haunt me for some time. More than that I am not willing to say at this time.
Before talking about the next book I should mention a couple of prequel short stories which are available in e-book editions. The first one published was "The Butcher of Anderson Station", which concerns one of the OPA leaders. Fred Lucius Johnson had initially been an Earth military officer, but he resigned (or was discharged) following the actions he took to free Anderson Station from mine workers disgruntled over new price restrictions for the products they supplied Earth companies. Johnson learned after the fact that his actions on the station could have been prevented, grew discouraged and skeptical of Earth policies, later allying with the Belters to organize for better conditions. This and a few other stories later in the sequence were released on their own as e-books, however another short story, "Drive," first appeared in an original anthology, Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which includes twelve unrelated stories from other authors. "Drive" is set about a hundred and fifty years prior to the main action of the series, and tells the story of Solomon Epstein, the developer of the new fusion drive that opens up the solar system to exploration. Both of these are good at setting the premise, but as with the novels they really shine because of the characters and the believability of their actions. I've listed everything in the "Overview" column to the right in chronological sequence, and I'll mention the other stories within the section of the novel they complement. I've read three of them so far, and while they flesh out the milieu and increase our knowledge of some of the characters, they are not essential to the enjoyment of the novels.
[UPDATE: 7/12/15] - "Drive" is now available to read at syfy.com. They also have the latest trailer for the series if you're interested, but I normally avoid as much promotion as possible. The pilot episode screened 7/11 at San Diego Comic Con [and more recently at NYCC], and the response has been very positive, although I haven't read specific reviews. I know there will be some changes, such as a character that doesn't appear until the second book being featured in the first season, but I prefer to wait and watch it as fresh and unspoiled as possible.
[UPDATE: 12/10/15] - Even though it doesn't premiere for a few days, I went ahead and started a page for the TV series, but will probably edit that several times during the season. I've only seen the pilot so far, but it has met my high expectations, and I'm eager to see more.
The second novel is Caliban's War, which takes place approximately eight months to a year after the end of the first book. Holden and his crew have contracted with OPA for several jobs, mainly escorting transport ships to and from various destinations as a deterrent against piracy. I still don't want to give too many details about the plot, yet there is one thing I probably should mention. [Do not read further if you haven't read Leviathan Wakes, unless you don't care about spoilers.]
The first book featured the discovery of an alien organism on the Saturn moon of Phoebe, kept secret by several Earth corporations with the aid of corrupt politicians and military leaders. They attempt to fashion the "proto-molecule" into a military weapon, but those plans are thwarted by Miller, Holden and Johnson. The first book went back and forth between the perspectives of Holden and Detective Miller. This time the story tracks four different characters: Holden; Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede; Chrisjen Avasarala, a U.N. diplomat; and Roberta "Bobbie" Draper, a gunnery sergeant in the Martian Marines.
Following the first book's conflicts between Earth, Mars and the Belt, Ganymede, which had been under Earth control, is now co-occupied by Earth and Martian troops. Draper's squad is on a routine patrol when they are attacked by an unknown entity, and she is the only survivor. It is later speculated that the attacker is another form of the proto-molecule. Johnson dispatches Holden and crew to assess the situation, and they make contact with Meng, who is searching for his missing four year old daughter. In the meantime, Draper is brought to Earth to tell her story before a U.N. council. Avasarala is the Assistant Under-Secretary for Executive Administration, two diplomatic levels below the Secretary General. Several other government workers, along with a faction of the Earth Navy, are still in conspiracy with holdovers from the company attempting to weaponize the proto-molecule. Avasarala recruits Draper to accompany her to Ganymede, but situations force them to change their course and they are rescued by Holden, just prior to a major confrontation between the rogue Earth Navy and a combined force of loyal Earth and Martian ships. What happens after the battle was unexpected, leading me to think the story will now go in a totally different direction than I had anticipated.
I read on a wikipedia page that Abraham and Franck trade off the writing of chapters, with Abraham taking the Prax and Avasarala stories, Franck those of Holden and Bobbie. They then swap chapters and edit each other's work. Both are good at action sequences, but as I've mentioned a couple of times already it is the characters that make the story satisfying, and since everything is from a third-person perspective the tone remains consistent throughout the book. Holden is the earnest, honest type, loyal to his crew, and yet he is also too brash and forward, too honest at times, getting them into tight scrapes on numerous occasions, inadvertently putting his adversaries (as well as potential allies) on the defensive. Meng is a humble man, a diligent botanist working on strains of soybeans, and yet he later exhibits a great strength of will and determination in his relentless search for his daughter. Avasarala is of Indian heritage, has a statue of the Buddha in her office, but is nothing like the mystical sage. Perhaps even more brash and brutally honest than Holden, as well as foul-mouthed, she intimidates everyone she encounters (other than her family), but is still surprised when she learns not everyone holds her in high esteem. Draper might respect her and follows her instructions, but she doesn't necessarily like her. Bobbie is suffering from survivor's guilt, but she is able to overcome that and perform the military duties required of her later. Together they make a formidable team. I did miss Miller's perspective here, but that previously mentioned surprise twist seems to indicate he will re-enter the story in the next book.
The related novella for this volume is Gods of Risk, set on Mars and focusing on a relative of Draper's. Bobbie has returned to Mars and is living with her older brother. She doesn't know what she will do next, since her association with Avasarala has many Martians branding her a traitor. Her nephew David is a fifteen-year-old student in a "lower university" chemistry program, who gets involved in cooking drugs for a low-life crime lord. Bobbie comes to his aid in rescuing a girl from the thug, and in so doing realizes she wants to resume her military career. If the Mars Navy will have her that is. A minor sub-plot is of the continued rivalry between Mars and Earth. Again, this story is not necessary to appreciate the novels, but at least the shorts are relatively inexpensive and do give a different perspective of the overall premise.
The further into the series I go, the harder it will be for me to avoid spoilers. I'll endeavor to limit them for the book in question, but I'll have to refer back to previous events, so don't read further into the review than you've read yourself, unless you don't care about spoilers. Before I talk about Abaddon's Gate, I need to backtrack and fill in some information that I've left out of the story so far, while at the same time not revealing too much. Jim Holden continues to be a main character, along with his crew, which consists of: Naomi Nagata, his XO and engineer/tech officer (and later his lover); Alex Kamal, pilot; and Amos Burton, mechanic. Holden and Burton were born on Earth, Kamal on Mars, and Nagata in the Belt. Each has a backstory, although we only have a couple of hints up to this point. They had been serving on the ice freighter Canterbury before it was destroyed. Events that are too complicated (and spoilery) to mention enabled them to "acquire" another ship, originally named the Tachi, but which Holden re-christens Rocinante. Due to several actions by Holden and crew, they are regarded as heroes by some (the Belters and OPA), but criminals and traitors by others. Now the Martian Navy wants their ship back, and a relative of a person Holden's actions sent to prison wants revenge.
The proto-molecule ended up on Venus at the end of the first book, mysteriously transforming itself and the planet's surface. During the attacks on Ganymede in the second book, observers noted anomalous spikes in activity on Venus, simultaneously, not limited to the speed of light, which seemed to indicate the proto-molecule was capable of actions that defied the laws of physics as we know them. Then at the end of Caliban's War, the proto-molecule (or at least a portion of it) launched itself away from Venus and established a ring-like structure beyond the orbit of Uranus. A consortium of organizations from Earth, Mars and the Belt, including OPA, send expeditions to observe and investigate this ring. Holden wants nothing to do with this, in fact he has contracted for a job that would put the Rocinante at the opposite side of the solar system from the ring, yet events conspire against him. With his ship about to be confiscated, he is forced to accept another assignment from a news crew that wants to cover the ring and the flotilla of ships heading its way. The person seeking revenge against him has placed a mole in the news crew to plant information implicating Holden in an explosion on one of the other ships.
As with the previous novels, the action is recounted in third person, alternating viewpoints between Holden and several others. Unfortunately, neither Avasarala or Bobbie Draper this time, but hopefully they will recur in later stories. New characters introduced include Carlos "Bull" c de Baca, an Earther, but one of OPA leader Fred Johnson's most reliable aides, having served under the Butcher of Anderson Station when they were both members of Earth's Navy. Here he is assigned as the security officer of the Behemoth, originally built as the first generational starship, but commandeered by OPA and converted to a battle cruiser. Among the other ships is a diplomatic mission that includes government officials from Earth and other colonies, as well as representatives of most religious denominations. Anna Volovodov is a Methodist minister from Europa, an extremely charismatic woman who figures prominently in the action that ensues. Melba Koh is an electro-chemical technician, part of a crew that travels between many of the other ships for maintenance and repairs. That isn't her real name though, but a pseudonym and fabricated persona which allows her to plan her revenge against Holden. Later in the book, after her deception is revealed, the chapter headings dealing with her perspective changes to her real name.
There is a lot of action on the various ships, as well as inside the ring structure, but much of it is repetitive and not as exciting as in the previous books. The main problem is that I had a hard time visualizing the different sections of the Behemoth and how they connected to each other, which made the events that occur within a big jumble of gunfire and explosions, and running and hiding. Several characters suffer what at first seem to be serious injuries, and yet they later are able to perform tasks as if those injuries were minor. These include Naomi, Amos and Alex, as well as Bull. The description of the ring structure and its purpose was a bit confusing as well, I need to re-read those passages. In spite of those caveats, it's a good book, although more a transitional story that sets up what I expect will be even more exciting adventures ahead.
The novella that was released shortly after this novel is The Churn. It could be read earlier though, as it is a flashback to Amos Burton's life on Earth before he emigrated to space. There had been a mention of his earlier life within the second book, but now I wonder if that information was correct or subject to misdirection. He had lived in Baltimore among multiple criminal elements, drugs, extortion and prostitution. When we first meet him his name is Timmy, but he later kills the "real" Amos Burton and assumes his identity, so some of the story about him could relate to Timmy, other parts to Amos. Maybe we'll learn more later. The title refers to a series of raids by the police, aided by a private security company. That company is Star Helix, which happens to be the employer of Miller on Ceres in the first book. Just as with the other shorts, it is not necessary to read this in any particular order, or at all, to appreciate the novels.
[Again, spoilers ahead for the previous books.]
I need to talk a bit more about the proto-molecule, the alien race that created it, and the events caused by its discovery. It had apparently been here for at least a billion years, captured by the gravity of Saturn, but it was conjectured its original destination had been Earth. In the first book, corporate, government, and military factions tried to captialize on the proto-molecule and weaponize it without realizing its full potential and danger. Juliette Mao was already infected when she traveled to the asteroid Eros. Captain Holden and Detective Miller were unable to save her, along with many other residents of that colony, and the proto-molecule propelled Eros out of its orbit and crashed into Venus. Miller was still aboard, desperately trying to change its course into the sun. The proto-molecule was designed to interact with whatever organic matter it came in contact with, to change and adapt with it, in a process and for a purpose still poorly understood. The one 'person' that might have some of the answers is Josephus Miller. Apparently the proto-molecule has been able to incorporate his detective nature into its own consciousness in order to investigate the demise of the race that created it. Miller now 'haunts' Holden, only appearing and speaking to him when Holden is alone. The main reason Holden did not want to travel to the ring formation in the previous book is because he knew Miller wanted him to, and that nothing good could come of it. He was mostly right.
Some of the events in the ring and beyond confused me. There were defensive sytems in place there, on a sphere of alien origin, but I wasn't sure if they were created by the race that developed the proto-molecule, or by the other race that had destroyed them. I suppose it's the latter, based on things that happen in Cibola Burn. The ring was a portal, a wormhole to another area of space. It was discovered that if a space ship entered the ring under normal fusion drive it was immediately stopped, its engines shut down, its crew killed or seriously injured by the sudden deceleration. But if a craft entered at very slow speed it could continue even though it might be slowed somewhat. Holden (and Miller) were able to make it to the sphere and disable the defensive systems, and in so doing they discovered there were many other ring structures nearby, a thousand or more, each a portal to another area of the galaxy (or maybe other galaxies?). If humanity could traverse those portals and discover other habitable worlds, the universe could be ours. The first such world explored goes by two names. The U.N. and Royal Charter Energy, the corporation that obtains mineral rights on the planet, refer to it as New Terra. However, before RCE can mount its own expedition, a band of refugees from Ganymede refit an old ship and make landfall and begin mining rich lithium deposits. They call their new home Ilus.
It seems that no matter where man goes, he will always bring old conflicts with him. The squatters and the RCE lock horns, reminiscent of the previous Earth/Mars/Belter quarrels, which in turn are reflective of current conflicts between corporations, governments, and workers, as well as terrorist organizations. The pattern of alternate character viewpoints continues here, following Holden and a couple of new characters, as well as one we last saw in the first book. Dimitri Havelock works security on the Edward Israel, the RCE ship that brings scientists and engineers to New Terra. He had been Miller's partner with Star Helix on Ceres in the first half of the first novel. He later provided Miller with important intel regarding actions by his then employer, Protagen, the company created to handle the proto-molecule. Other viewpoint characters are Basia Merton, one of the squatters on Ilus and a member of a group that takes a militant stand against RCE; also, Elvi Okoye, a biologist in the employ of RCE, who establishes a fruitful cooperation with Basia's wife Lucia, a physician. Avasarala and Bobbie Draper are only featured in the brief prologue and epilogue, but they are likely to be important in the next book. Hopefully.
I have a few quibbles about this book, mostly elements that veer farther toward fantasy than before, too many deus ex machina moments. Then again, the race that created the proto-molecule, as well as the race that defeated them, are so far beyond our scientific understanding as to make them seem like gods in comparison. I can forgive the plot manipulation that keeps Miller in the story because he's a great character, especially how he interacts with Holden. Plus, the action is intense and unpredictable. Even though I was sure most of the main characters would survive, I wasn't so sure about others I came to care about, and the how and the why of their fates kept me on the edge of my seat. I know I will eventually re-read this series, and when I do my opinion might change, but at this time I'd say, in spite of those quibbles, Cibola Burn ties with Leviathan Wakes as the best. I'm still looking to the future though, and expect many more great adventures aboard the Rocinante.
Nemesis Games is another book with a few weak elements, but overall it is just as exciting as the others. I have grown fond of the crew of the Rocinante, of how they have bonded under great duress and hardship, so it was difficult at first for me to accept them going their separate ways. The fact that they are together again at the end doesn't lessen the fear and anxiety I felt for them throughout the book. While Holden stays on Tycho Station with Fred Johnson, Naomi returns to Ceres in response to an enigmatic message she receives from someone from her past. Since the Rocinante is in dry-dock, Alex takes advantage of the lull in activity to go to Mars in an attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife, while Amos goes to Earth when he learns an old friend has passed away.
Needless to say, none of them have an easy time of it in their various ports of call. Each has to deal with a dangerous situation, and we later learn that each event is connected. The same factions are still in play, Earth, Mars, the Belt, OPA, but now we see multiple conflicting ideologies within each group. Some of the ways the plot progresses seems coincidental and serendipitous, which is the only negative I can think of, but when all the connections are revealed it comes full circle to an understandable finish. Not necessarily a satisfactory one though. There are still elements that will carry over to the next book, as several of our protagonists have to face consequences for their actions. I was pleased that Avasarala and Bobbie Draper show up again, but I was caught off guard by the inclusion of another character I thought we'd never see or hear about again. Not only the character herself, but the how and why of it. That's just one of many instances of how the books continue to surprise me and subvert my expectations.
The latest novella, The Vital Abyss, is the only story so far to be written in first person, the narrator being a scientist named Cortazár. The timeline is not clear, but it covers two periods in the character's life, when he is being held prisoner by Belters in an undisclosed location, as well as a prior time when he worked for Protagen studying the proto-molecule. Two things are made abundantly clear; most of the scientists were only interested in what they could learn from the alien organism without concern for the consequences, and also that there is a faction controlling the jailers who wish to extract as much information from the scientists so as to continue work on the proto-molecule if they are lucky enough to find a sample of it. It seems that at least one of the factions is connected to one of the groups at the heart of the story in Nemesis Games. Events in the TV series have been altered slightly, rearranged time-wise, as Cortazár is seen as a prisoner of Fred Johnson on Tycho Station in Season 2.
Beginning a new page with novel #6-Babylon's Ashes.
My review of Syfy's The Expanse TV Series.
The Expanse Wiki - concerning both the books and the TV series.
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