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Book review: Leviathan Wakes by S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck)

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Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck)

 

Holden is a crewman on the Canterbury, an ice-hauler traipsing back and forth between the inner planets of the Solar system and the outer colonies. When his ship is attacked by unknown forces whilst investigating a derelict, a series of events is set in motion which will lead the three great powers - Earth, Mars and the Belt - to the brink of war. Meanwhile, Miller, a cop on Ceres, is tasked with investigating the disappearance of a young woman. His search leads him closer to a far-ranging conspiracy, and into contact with Holden and his crew. The stakes are high as they uncover a threat to the entire human race, a threat which some see as an opportunity...

 

Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse series, is an unapologetic, old-school space opera. There's been a few of these recently, but few with the elan and furiously page-turning readability of this book. Part of this can be attributed to its writers: James S.A. Corey is a pen-name for Daniel Abraham, the author of the brilliant Long Price Quartet fantasy series, and Ty Franck, George R.R. Martin's assistant who created the setting for an SF roleplaying campaign. Abraham's experience and steadying hand and Franck's ferocious enthusiasm have combined here to create something quite compelling. In the acknowledgements section they reveal that a number of other major SFF authors had a hand in critiquing the book and offering advice, such as Walter Jon Williams (himself a space opera veteran) and astrophysicist Ian Tregillis, who helped out with the hard science part of the book.

 

Part of the appeal of the book is its structure. Like Donaldson's Gap Series and Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, it uses a rotating POV technique. Unlike those big, sprawling series, Leviathan Wakes only has two major POV characters, Holden and Miller, and bounces back and forth between them in turn. This has the effect of keeping the book very tightly focused, helping keep the pace fast but not so much that subtler nuances of plot and characterisation are lost. The authors aren't reinventing the wheel here and the two characters are pretty standard types: Miller is the embittered, cynical, divorced, hard-drinking cop with trust issues, Holden the idealistic, righteous and optimistic officer. Naturally they're chalk and cheese and don't get on very well at first but eventually strike up a good working relationship and earn some mutual respect.

 

Luckily, the authors are too good to let this transform into a 1980s buddy cop movie. The characters are well-motivated with convincing motivations and rationales for their actions, and they are steered away from cliche as their relationship takes some unexpected turns as the book progresses. There is also a nice contrast in that Holden has a small crew of well-drawn characters supporting him, whilst Miller is working alone. The supporting cast, such as Holden's crew, is also well-depicted, but the important character of Fred seems a bit too convenient and good to be true, and hopefully we get more into his head in later books in the series as he is a bit flat as a character at the moment. The other major character, Julie, is presented in an intriguing manner: missing when the book opens, Miller constructs a mental version of Julie to help him get through the case and then has to keep readjusting that image as he encounters the life story of the 'real' Julie.

 

The book appears to have many influences. John Carpenter's The Thing appears to have been one, whilst the small ship and the loyal crew elements recall Firefly and Blake's 7. Using a (relatively) small cast as a window onto larger events, mostly reported through news reports and tension-filled long-range transmissions, is reminiscent of Babylon 5, as is the general tech level and the use of real Newtonian physics in the space battles. I'd also be surprised if Donaldson's Gap Series hadn't been read by both authors, whilst the cop-in-space-noir-thriller angle is reminiscent of some of Alastair Reynolds' work. The tensions between the 'stations' (as the asteroid settlements are derogatorily called by the people of Earth and Mars) and the planets also recalls CJ Cherryh's Downbelow Station. But these influences are never worn too overtly on the sleeve: Leviathan Wakes also forges its own path.

 

Leviathan Wakes (****½) is a ridiculously entertaining space opera, let down perhaps by only a couple of coincidences and moments of dramatic convenience. Otherwise it's a relentless, page-turning novel with some great character-building. The book will be published in the UK on 2 June 2011 and in the USA on 15 June 2011. The second volume, Caliban's War, is apparently already nearly complete and should follow in a year or so.

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The Expanse #2: Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck)

 

An alien protomolocule has taken root on Venus. Earth and Mars are in a shooting match over an incident on Ganymede. The Solar system is moving towards all-out anarchy and war, and it falls to a well-meaning meddler, a canny politician, a Martian marine and a grief-stricken botanist to try to stop the descent into madness.

 

Caliban's War is the second novel in The Expanse series, following on from last year's well-received Leviathan Wakes. This is old-school space opera, featuring the crew of a spacecraft as they attempt to save the Solar system from an alien menace. The series features some nods towards serious science - the ships work strictly by Newtonian physics and there is no FTL travel, with the scope of events being limited (so far) to the Solar system alone - but it's certainly not hard SF. The emphasis is being on an entertaining, fast-paced read, and the book pulls this off with aplomb.

 

The cast of characters has been expanded in this volume, with only Holden returning as a POV character from the first volume. Unlike the first novel, which had a grand total of two POVs, this second volume features four: Holden, UN politician Avasarala, botanist Prax and marine Bonnie. This means that the authors have three major new characters to introduce us to, as well as continuing the storyline from the first novel and evolving the returning cast of characters (Holden and his crew). This results in the pace being marginally slower than in Leviathan Wakes, although certainly not fatally so. Indeed, Abraham and Franck imbue the new characters with interesting backstories, motivations and quirks. It's also quite amusing that the most enjoyable character in an action-packed space opera is a 70-year-old politician with a potty mouth.

 

There's some major shoot-outs, a few big space battles, a close encounter with a rampaging monster in a zero-gravity cargo hold and other action set pieces that are handled well, but the book falters a little in its handling of politics (which are fairly lightweight) and the characterisation of the bad guys, who never rise above the obvious.

 

Caliban's War (***½) is not as accomplished as its forebear but is still a page-turning, solidly enjoyable read. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Expanse #3: Abaddon's Gate

 

A mysterious alien artifact - a gateway - has been constructed beyond Uranus's orbit. Its purpose is unknown. Representatives from Earth, Mars and the Belt are rushing to investigate, among them, reluctantly, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. The artifact holds the key to the future of the human race, an opportunity to spread mankind to the stars...but it is also a weapon that could incinerate the entire Solar system if it falls unto the wrong hands.

Abaddon's Gate is the third novel in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), which is expected to run to nine novels (and "Will soon be a major television series"). This book picks up after the events of Caliban's War, although unfortunately some of the more notable characters from that book are missing. Instead, we have a number of new POV characters joining the returning figures of Holden and the Rocinante crew.

The book initially opens with the different factions racing to the gate with their own agendas and goals in mind. There's a murderous character plotting vengeance on Holden in a (not very convincing) way of getting him involved in the plot. There's tensions on the Belter command ship between the psychotic captain and his more reasonable executive officer and security chief. There's a religious-but-non-fanatical leader who couples pious morality with hard-headed practicality. And so on. It's all reasonable enough, until the crew arrive at the gate and pass through it into a strange sub-pocket of space where physical rules can be rewritten and an ancient intelligence uses the form of Detective Miller to speak to Holden.

At this point things take a turn for the bizarre and it feels like The Expanse is about to break out into a fully-blown hard SF novel. The "slow zone" of the gateway space feels like a nod to Vernor Vinge, and the limitations of slower-than-light travel when the laws of physics keep changing is the sort of thing that would earn an Alastair Reynolds nod of approval. It's all nicely set up for The Expanse to move away from its MOR space opera roots and turn into something more than explosions and gunfights.

Except that doesn't happen. The novel soon falls back into its comfort zone of explosions and gunfights, with the major characters all forced into choosing sides between the psychotic captain of the Belter command ship and his other senior crew. This would have more resonance if we'd had the mad captain set up a bit better, but he isn't. It just feels like he's there and mad and antagonistic because, well, the book wouldn't have any conflict without him.

The action set-pieces are generally well-handled, there's some very nice zero-gee combat scenes and Abraham and Franck don't let up on the pace until the last page. There is no denying that there's fun to be had here. But it also feels a bit shallow, and it reinforces the feeling that The Expanse is SF with the training wheels left on. Abaddon's Gate feels like it should have been allowed to make a turn into crazy hard SF weirdness, but instead it's shoehorned back into being an action story. A very nicely-done action story, but there is military SF around that does this stuff a lot better.

As it stands, Abaddon's Gate (***½) ends up being just another readable, fast-paced and entertaining instalment of a readable, fast-paced and entertaining series. Which is fine, but there is definitely the prospect here, between the authors' excellent worldbuilding and solid prose skills, of elevating things onto another level. Hopefully later instalments will deliver on the promise of the series, which is so far tantalising but unfulfilled. Abaddon's Gate is available now in the UK and USA.

 

 

The Expanse #4: Cibola Burn

 

An alien artifact has opened a wormhole nexus leading to a thousand different star systems, all of them containing at least one Earth-like world. A mass exodus, the greatest diaspora in human history, is threatening to take place but one group of Belter settlers have already staked a claim to a world they call Ilus, although the corporation granted UN settlement rights prefers to call it New Terra. As the settlers and corporate representatives resort to violence, it falls to Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to mediate their dispute. This proves to be a lot easier said than done.

Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in The Expanse series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey) and the first to take place outside the Solar system. The Expanse's big success in its opening novels was that it created a relatively restrained vision of the future, with humanity forced to employ slower-than-light travel between the worlds of the Solar system. After the events of Abaddon's Gate, the way to the stars has been thrown open, but it still takes months to get anywhere. For the colonists on Ilus and later the Rocinante crew, this puts them well out of the range of immediate help when things go disastrously wrong.

Each of the Expanse novels has taken a somewhat different tone, helped by Holden being the only continuing POV character, with the rest being exclusive to each novel. Cibola Burn feels like a Western (and more Deadwood than Gunsmoke), with the unruly settlers on the frontier being reeled back in by the mining company backed up by a reluctant sherrif with Indians and smallpox on the horizon. There's lots of hard moral questions and tough challenges posed by both the situation and the environment. This shift of tone is welcome and well-played as it allows a tighter focus on real, low-tech issues and solutions like the first (and still the best) novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes. The threat of the protomolecule, its creators and its even more enigmatic enemies does reassert itself towards the end of the book, along with a space-borne problem that feels a little too reminiscent of Abaddon's Gate, but it definitely takes a back seat for the most of the book.

The focus is on three new characters: a Belter settler named Basia, who is reluctantly drawn into becoming a terrorist; a security officer called Havelock on the orbiting corporation ship and a scientist named Elvi who just wants to be left alone so she can get on with cataloguing the planet's crazy flora and fauna.  These are all well-crafted characters, if not particularly original. Havelock, as the company man who suddenly realises his corporate masters are useless, is an archetype that is looking dangerously overused at this point in the series. Other characters are less well-defined, and main villain Murtry is as cliched and uninteresting as they come: a rigid, dogmatic man unable to adapt to changing circumstances unless it involves shooting things. I get the impression that Abraham and Frank wanted to create a morally murky situation with sympathetic POVs on both sides, but Murtry's outright villainy soon means that the corporate side loses all sympathy and interest.

For a novel almost 600 pages long (in hardcover!) the pages fly past briskly and there's an interesting move away from the gunfights and set piece explosions of the previous novels. There's still a zero-G battle or three, but the writers dial back the more obvious shooting in favour of evoking the occasional SF sensawunda that represents the genre at its best. The social commentary on us bringing our baggage to the stars is well-handled, if a little obvious, and events run enjoyably up to a climax that hints at bigger things to come.

Cibola Burn (****) is the best book in the series since Leviathan Wakes, restoring focus and verve to a series that felt like it was becoming predictable. It'll be interesting to see how they adapt this book to the screen in later seasons of The Expanse, however. Although the producers will likely enjoy the far smaller scale (and hence budget) of things, I can't see viewers being too interested in taking a season off from the rest of the Solar system to see Holden and his crew dealing with frontier settler problems. But as a novel, it workers very well. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Expanse #5: Nemesis Games

 

Several years of constant duty has left the independent frigate Rocinante damaged and in severe need of a refit. With the ship in a repair dock for several months of work, the crew scatters back to their homes to catch up with old friends and family. With humanity moving out to explore the new worlds beyond the alien wormhole gateway, it feels like a time of peace and opportunity. This abruptly changes when the largest terrorist attack in human history kills millions and suddenly the Solar system is plunged into chaos. The crew of the Rocinante have to regroup and stop the crisis from getting even worse.

Nemesis Games is the fifth of nine planned books in The Expanse series, carrying us firmly into the second half of the story. Co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey) have structured this series in a very interesting way, using only Jim Holden as their ongoing POV character and swapping other characters in and out with every passing volume. The story has also evolved in an organic way, moving from a near-future thriller rooted in realism in Leviathan Wakes to much grander stories involving aliens and gateways, as well as frontier colonialism. This approach helps keep things fresh, especially when compared to the numerous military SF series out which go on year after year, getting more stale with each passing volume.

Nemesis Games is different to the preceding books in several ways. First off, it splits the POVs between the four crewmembers of the Rocinante. Holden still present, but Alex, Amos and Naomi now all get their own storylines and perspectives. This is a very welcome and overdue move, especially for Naomi who always clearly had more background and complexity going on than Holden (who is often somewhat dense, it has to be said) was able to discern from her. Focusing on Amos, a deeply violent man who requires external stabilising forces to keep himself from snapping altogether, is also a rewarding move which furthers his character more. Alex is the most straightforward crewmember on the Rocinante and this makes him arguably the least interesting, but Abraham and Franck throw in a crowd-pleasing move by teaming him up with Bobbie Draper, the fan-favourite Martian marine from Caliban's War, for most of his mission.

The rotating chapter structure keeps things ticking along quite nicely and at first it appears that our characters are all involved in completely different events. Links soon appear between them and suddenly everything comes crashing together when the terror attacks take place. This is a game-changing moment in the series when the powers and factions we have gotten used to through four previous volumes are challenged by the arrival of a new, more dangerous force and all the existing rules are thrown out. The abruptness of the catastrophic attack is brutally effective, even if the scale of the conspiracy required to bring it about is at times unconvincing: Abraham and Franck evoke a similar feeling of shock to the events of 9/11 but on a far vaster scale involving thousands of conspirators, but that makes the likelihood of the plan succeeding without being found out rather less likely.

Once chaos has been unleashed the authors slam down the accelerator. Nemesis Games moves rapidly between Alex and Bobbie on a desperate rescue mission to Holden's politicking on Tycho Station to Amos and Clarissa Mao trying to escape from a scene of utter devastation to Naomi reluctantly trapped on the inside of the criminal conspiracy. There's a feeling of doom-laden relentlessness to the book which keeps things moving along quickly. This is also the first time in the series where the authors haven't felt the need to tie up the primary storyline before the end of the novel, as they seem to consider Nemesis Games and the forthcoming sixth volume, Babylon's Ashes, as a duology within the framework of the larger series. The novel ends with the bad guys still at large, the catastrophic aftermath of the attack still unfolding and new threats emerging beyond the wormhole gateways.

There are flaws in all of this: Naomi is captured and spends the bulk of the novel imprisoned and trying to talk her captors down from their villainy. Although the authors change things up by having Naomi's captors being her friends from childhood, it still feels a little too much like a retread of Naomi's story in the previous novel in the series, Cibola Burn. The actual moment of the terror attack also feels a little undercooked, as we move from the villain declaiming that something huge is about to happen to seeing a news report on the aftermath. But the impact on the characters is immense and the way it restructures the story going forwards is quite well-handled. In addition, some readers may be disappointed that there is little to no expansion given for the protomolecule storyline and the mystery of what happened to its creators, but arguably after three books focusing on that to the possible detriment of the human story, that's not too much of a problem.

Nemesis Games (****½) finally fulfils the promise laid down by Leviathan Wakes five years ago and is the best volume in The Expanse to date. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The next book in the series, Babylon's Ashes, will be published on 2 November 2016.

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