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The Expanse Book Series, Part 2
by James S. A. Corey
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Babylon's Ashes / Persepolis Rising / Tiamat's Wrath / ?

The original page for the book series was getting very long, and since there are at least three more novels planned to follow Babylon's Ashes, I thought it best to start a new page. If you're new to this series, please refer to this page for my thoughts on the first five novels (+ five shorter stories). Some of my previous comments may have contained more spoilers than I would have liked, but this series is complex, following a wide range of characters and their actions in many different locations, with a lot of the events carrying over to subsequent volumes. I did my best to limit that for the previous book, and I have to be very careful here too. What follows will be more a generic interpretation of the significant themes explored throughout the series.

There has been a lot of political and social commentary that can be viewed as parallels to both historical and current events, on the national level as well as the personal. Earth stands in for the old guard of first world nations, Great Britain, France, Spain. They were responsible for most of the development of the Belt and beyond, and they're anxious to maintain their control. Mars is similar to the United States, a grand new vision for cooperation toward a common goal, in this case terra-forming and self-sufficiency. The Belt represents the colonies that threw off the yoke of imperialist countries in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. As we have seen in the real world, some of them have been successful in establishing democracies, while others have been controlled by the strongest warlord. The Belt wants self-determination, and is resentful of the continued influence of Earth in directing its future. Fred Johnson has been a leading figure in at least one branch of the OPA, yet he is from Earth, so many in the Belt consider him an interloper with divided loyalties. The same applies to James Holden, no matter how much he has helped their cause. This relates to the personal level of today's identity politics, where marginalized peoples resent other groups telling them what they should think and how they should act.

All of the major players have different factions vying for control. Some in the Earth government (and the military) were allied with Protagen, the company set up to study and capitalize on the proto-molecule, with no regard for the dangers. Other corporations were only concerned with their profits in manufacturing and shipping in the Belt. Many on Mars were demoralized that their terra-forming project had been a waste of time and resources, now that the alien portals led to many new worlds on which humanity might be able to survive on the surface as is. A revolutionary cabal of Belters has taken control of Medina Station and is blocking emigration through the portals. That station began as the Nauvoo, intended to be the first generational starship, but was then commandeered by Fred Johnson as an OPA gunship and renamed the Behemoth. Now it orbits the alien sphere just inside the ring portal near Uranus, controlled by the Belt's Free Navy. Several previously loyal to the Free Navy have broken away from their leader, Marco Inaros, when they realize he is a megalomaniac. Inaros has a history with one of the main characters, but I'm not giving any details about that.

Shifting alliances propel most of the action in this book, with the crew of the Rocinante in the middle of most of it. Holden continues to be an enigmatic character, hardly ever the smartest, but somehow he eventually makes the right decision at the right time, and he's also good at delegating authority. There are quite a few space battles, with the fate of all humanity in the balance at every turn. I feared they were setting up the death of one of my favorite characters, so I was surprised when they survived (but another didn't). Recent scientific speculations, particularly from Dr. Stephen Hawking, warn of the necessity of becoming a multi-planet species to avoid a catastrophe such as a large asteroid striking Earth. Following the devastating attacks by all sides in the Expanse universe, a statistician sets the deadline for human survival in the system at just over three years. Looks like the next step will be going through those portals again and establishing viable colonies on other worlds. Then again, this series hasn't been that predictable so far, it's anybody's guess what will happen next. Wherever it goes, I'm along for the ride..

Update, July 18, 2017: The novella Strange Dogs was released today, and I've just finished it. It does not give a clue as to where the next novel might go, and as far as I recall there is only one character we've seen in the books before, but it is one I haven't mentioned, and I won't identify him now. It is set on another planet accessible through one of the alien ring portals. After the experience Holden and crew had on Ilus in the fourth book, they returned to our solar system for other events in books five and six. In the meantime, several other trans-portal expeditions had taken place. This story is about one of them. It is again written in third person, the perspective being that of ten year old Cara, so the style is different than any of the others, more lyrical, almost dream-like, perhaps how a child experiences the world. Cara has lived on Laconia with her parents, members of the original survey team, for eight years. Her younger brother, Xan, was born on Laconia. The survey mission was supposed to have only been a five year assignment, and Cara's parents are anxious to go home, although she only knows Earth from her story books and things learned at school and from her parents. A rogue faction from the Mars Navy has aligned with the Belter Free Navy and has come to Laconia, essentially occupying it under martial law, but doing so as diplomatically as possible to avoid panic. They have not revealed any of the tragic events that have occurred back in the Sol system.

A lot of that detail isn't given here, I only know it because I've read all the books and remember a particular character from before. This could be read as a stand-alone story without confusion, even without that prior knowledge, which I can't say about any other part of this series except the short story "Drive" and the first novel. Cara is an intelligent, inquisitive child. Her parents realize this and do not restrict her explorations around their home. She frequents a nearby pond and forest, observing the sunbirds and other creatures native to Laconia. They aren't really birds, just the closest equivalent Earthers recognize. There are also insect-like and fish-like creatures, as well as plants similar to Earth grasses and trees. Cara is familiar with the area and its flora and fauna, but is surprised one day by something she hasn't seen before, animals she calls dogs for lack of a better description. I won't relate the events that give Cara a notion of the strange dogs' capabilities, nor what later happens that compels her to seek their help with a problem. I also won't go into the "stick moons" that orbit Laconia, mainly because I'm still a bit puzzled by that myself. I think they are part of the Navy presence, but if they are they may also be connected to another phenomenon, and they may also be connected to the strange dogs. In fact, the only other thing I'll say is I hope we visit Laconia again, and I hope Cara is featured.

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The seventh novel in the sequence, Persepolis Rising, was released just two days ago, and I finished it late last night. There are two more novels under contract, which the authors have said will conclude the series, and the last three can be considered a closely connected trilogy. There have been a few ups and downs throughout the series, some very strong stories, but also a couple not as satisfying. I'm happy to say this one is definitely in the former category, with only two plot points I'd bother to nit-pick if I cared to.

The tradition of alternating chapters from different character perspectives continues here. The prologue is set on Laconia, the setting of the preceding novella, with the viewpoint character one we met in the novella before that. Paolo Cortazár was a scientist working on the proto-molecule for Protagen. He has already appeared on the TV series in a slightly revised story arc. He is obsessed with the proto-molecule. At this point it is his only reason for being, to study it and adapt it for many uses. Human subjects have been infected with it, and blood drawn from them is used to develop a serum to be administered to (as far as I know) one individual. Winston Duarte had been an officer of the Martian Navy who had convinced many of his fellow officers to defect, commandeering several Naval vessels. They aligned themselves with the Belter Free Navy, but in actuality the Belters were pawns in Duarte's scheme to steal the only known remaining sample of the proto-molecule, at that time in the possession of Fred Johnson on Tycho Station. They then escaped the solar system through the Laconia ring portal. Duarte is convinced the serum will make him immortal. Cortazár doesn't care if that is the case, he is content to experiment with the proto-molecule for his own intellectual curiosity.

More than twenty years have passed since the events in Babylon's Ashes, close to thirty since the beginning events in the first book. The dire prediction of humanity having as little as three years for survival in Sol system was premature. Earth is slowly recovering from the bombardment it suffered in Nemesis Games, and a lot of pressure was removed when millions took advantage of the ring portals to start colonies on up to thirteen hundred alien worlds. Tycho Station has been moved from its former orbit in the belt to be attached to the asteroid Pallas, and an intense project of rebuilding ships and other stations had commenced, now that Earth, Mars, and the Belt had joined forces. Camina Drummer left her position as head of security on Tycho Station and is now President of the Transport Union, which controls nearly all shipping within the system as well as to the colony worlds. The crew of Rocinante have worked with the Transport Union and other entities, carrying freight and passengers, and in a few instances prisoners, all across Sol system, and to and from many alien worlds. One exception to that being Laconia, which had forbidden any movement through their portal. However, they never said they wouldn't ever come back through that portal themselves. When they do, it is with a huge and radically different new ship design, along with mystifying new weapon systems, courtesy of the proto-molecule.

Holden and crew had recently completed a mission to another colony world, Freehold, and are on Medina at the time of this incident. They are separated for a time, but then gather together again, along with several Belter insurgent groups. I'll mention the two points I can criticize now and get them out of the way. A character first introduced in the third book, who then surprisingly reappeared in the fifth, is still on the Rocinante. Without going into spoilers about either of those appearances, she suffers from a medical condition that I thought would have resulted in her death in just a few years, that is if Holden or someone else hadn't killed her before then. Yet she's still around more than twenty years later? Perhaps it is a testament to advanced drugs and therapies available to her, but still, it's puzzling. It did offer a poignant, but harrowing, story arc for Amos Burton, so I guess she served her purpose. There were a few other things about character interactions that I didn't expect, one is a close friendship that I had assumed would have developed into a romantic one based on previous events. Holden and Nagata are still a couple, but the rest of the crew is simply a close-knit family of convenience.

The other thing I could nit-pick is how the insurgent groups are able to avoid detection by the Laconian troops for so long, but without that factor the book would have been much shorter. I suppose the authors felt the time jump was necessary to account for both the solar system's recovery, as well as Laconia's development of so much new tech, but I would like to have seen more of those events, more adventures from the Rocinante crew. What we do get are several intense action sequences as they endeavor to fight back against the Laconian occupation, as well as space battle scenes as the Laconian battleship ventures toward the inner planets. Without going into details, I'll just say things don't go so well for Sol system, but the Rocinante and about twenty other ships are able to escape Medina and make it through various ring portals. Will they be able to fight back against the seemingly indestructable Laconian forces, or will they have to settle for hiding from Duarte's empire? This is the first book in which the ending has a Rocinante crew member separated from the rest, and there's no guarantee they'll be reunited in the next book, but surely by the final one. We can hope at least, but I won't be surprised if we lose another character or two along the way.

If the TV show doesn't alter complete story arcs, and if it lasts long enough to reach this arc, I am sure they will condense, minimize, or otherwise get around the huge time jump. [EDIT: Latest news is it won't get this far, since Syfy has announced they're done after Season 3, but there's hope someone else will revive it.] [UPDATE: Amazon to the rescue!] The next book, Tiamat's Wrath, has been announced for Dec. 4, 2018, and I have already pre-ordered it. [CRAP! It's been delayed til March 26, 2019.] It is also possible another novella or short story could come sooner than that. The only other thing I'll say for now is that I'm still a big fan of this series, on board for however long the ride lasts.

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The first paragraph of Tiamat's Wrath is very short. One sentence. Four words. Four devastating words. A virtual gut-punch for someone who has read all the books and cares for the characters. And it's not the only one, the hits keep coming throughout the book. When I first reviewed the TV show I avoided spoilers about cast members who wouldn't be around long, saying that space and war was a dangerous business, and lives would be lost. I've tried to be vague about that in reviewing the books too. For the most part, the lives lost were unknown, unnamed people, the typical casualties of war, but there were also two or three who would be considered main characters. Now I have to wonder how many will be left standing by the end of the next book, which is supposed to be the conclusion. Even those still alive then won't necessarily be the same people they were when their adventures began.

Jim Holden is on Laconia, a prisoner of Winston Duarte, but by this time he has a bit of freedom to roam about the State Building and its grounds, not locked in a cell. Apparently Duarte realizes he either doesn't have the information he is seeking or won't give it up, so Holden is now what he terms a 'dancing bear,' little more than Duarte's pet. Everyone knows who he is and what he did to come to Duarte's attention, but he's left alone for the most part, even though he's under constant surveillance. Bobbie Draper and Alex Kamal are on a ship stolen from the Laconian fleet, flying under the radar but also trying to coordinate with other insurgents in Sol system. Naomi Nagata was offered a berth on that ship but instead chose to work on her own, but under the supervision of the insurgency's leader, Saba, still in hiding on Medina Station. The whereabouts and status of Amos Burton is unknown, ever since he went on a covert op into Laconian space, an attempt to extract Holden. Paolo Cortazar is still studying and manipulating the proto-molecule, as much for his own designs as it is to support Duarte's agenda. He now has a couple of other subjects to experiment on, courtesy of the strange dogs from the last novella, which are actually proto-molecule powered repair drones.

A favorite character from book four, Elvi Okoye, is back in the picture. Technically a major in the Laconian Navy, but not in the military chain of command. She's a science officer on a ship tasked with studying various dead systems, those having no habitable planets or moons. One of the systems has a single structure that she is convinced was made by the same race that created the proto-molecule. Essentially a giant diamond, she thinks it may be a database for all of their science, but unfortunately she's not the commanding officer of the mission, so is overruled. Instead of being allowed to study it further, they are ordered to move to another system. It is devoid of any material at all other than its sun, which is a rapidly spinning neutron star, very near to collapsing into a black hole. Elvi is appalled when she learns what Duarte's plans are for that system. The desired effect is produced, but it's more devastating than anticipated, and they are barely able to make it back to Laconia intact. Something I've just briefly mentioned before is that the race that produced the proto-molecule was apparently wiped out by another far superior race, never seen yet, but their presence had been felt when they reacted to particular actions produced through use of the proto-molecule. Why Duarte would choose to provoke another response from them is puzzling, other than assuming he is insane.

There is as much action in this book as any of the others, space battles galore, some won, but with heavy losses. The overall war is still raging, but Laconia is crippled somewhat, but anything can happen when you have the proto-molecule on your side. Even with all that, there are still smaller, more personal moments, as the characters deal with their individual demons, and their desire to reunite with former comrades. The bright spot is the Rocinante is flying again, and Elvi might be in a position to go back to that 'diamond' system to see if her speculation was correct. The other mysterious entity is still out there, so the focus has to be on understanding them, hopefully to appease them if at all possible, maybe even cooperation? The only other option would seem to be going back to Sol system and forgetting about the ring gates and the proto-molecule altogether, but that seems unlikely. It's hard to believe they'll be able to wrap up the story in just one more book, but I'm ready for it, no matter how long the wait. I'm sure it will be just as exciting as the rest of the journey, perhaps even more anxiety-inducing.

 

Related Links:
Reviews of the first five novels, Leviathan Wakes - Nemesis Games.
Review of Syfy's The Expanse TV show.
The Expanse Wiki - concerning both the books and the TV series.

 

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Author
James S. A. Corey

Published
2016-2019

Awards
Babylon's Ashes won Dragon Award for Best SF Novel

Amazon links:
Babylon's Ashes

Strange Dogs (Novella on Kindle)

Persepolis Rising

Tiamat's Wrath