Review: Caliban's War

Caliban's War (Expanse Series #2)Caliban's War, James S.A. Corey's follow-up to the Hugo-nominated Leviathan Wakes takes readers back to the well-realized world of The Expanse. It's an all guns blazing thrill-ride that ups the stakes in the Expanse and keeps me wanting more.

Picking up several months after the events of its predecessor, we find James Holden, who had survived the Eros event and started a system-wide war between the various planetary factions, is now running missions for the Outer Planets Alliance. At the same time, Earth and Mars have returned to an uneasy relationship, with their forces ready to open up on one another across numerous fronts. Praxidike Meng, a botanist on the breadbasket of the Outer Planets, Ganymede, finds his daughter has been kidnapped after a mysterious threat is encountered by UN and Martian Marines. The two groups of Marines are attacked, leaving a single survivor: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, who is ordered to accompany Martian diplomats to Earth to sort out what happened. There, she meets Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN politician working to prevent outright war between various factions of the Solar System.

Where I'd describe Leviathan Wakes as a robust space opera story, Caliban's War strays far closer to the Military Science Fiction subgenre. This book is packed with quite a bit of military action from the get-go, and throughout the novel, it's approached in a well-thought-out way. When the bullets aren't flying, we see a considerable amount of political work that help make up the backend of any military action, which keeps up a certain amount of tension and adds depth to the book as a whole. The result is a military science fiction novel that gets both the action and the motivations for fighting right on.

Following the end of Leviathan Wakes, with the death of one of the central characters, Corey introduces a number of new characters: notably, Bobbie, the Martian Marine gunnery sergeant who survives an early encounter with what appears to be a new form of the protomolocule. In addition to Bobbie, Praxidike Meng, a botanist from Ganymede plays a key role in the search for his daughter and Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN Undersecretary of Executive Administration have come in to accompany New Characters, trying to get everyone to listen to one another. As a whole, the entire group of new faces is a welcome one, keeping the relationships between the existing characters interesting. Each are nicely assembled with some familiar parts: the tough as nails Marine, the somewhat clueless scientist, and the hard ass politician, and have some other points that round them all out nicely: Bobbie suffering deeply from the loss of her platoon, and Avasarala's about face personality when it comes to her grandchildren. Bobbie Draper in particular has become one of my favorite characters in the series thus far. Tough and determined, Draper is a great example of a strong female character that doesn't really conform to a lot of the molds, and one that wasn't thrown into the series to simply fill out the gender balance.

Caliban's War follows a similar formula as Leviathan Wakes did: a girl vanishes, people attempt to find her, Holden tries to broadcast information to the solar system, all while big picture political elements are at work towards their own nefarious ends, before quite a lot of action happens. It's not a bad formula to follow, and while the story doesn't retell the first one, it does make it predictable at points. Following an exciting opening, the predictability allowed some of the necessary setup to slow down the book for a while, before the last act brings all of the diverse elements together and end the book with a bang. As the story accelerates towards the finish line, so to does the stakes, and this second novel becomes a fantastic bridge for the rest of the presumed trilogy. (There are a further four books and several short stories planned at this point). A major cliff-hanger moment down to the last line of the book makes me hope that at some point, HBO will pick up the books for a television series.

Like Leviathan's Wake, the two authors who comprise James S.A. Corey, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, have done a knock-out job when it comes to the world that they've created. Hearty, durable and dripping with details, Caliban's War gives you all of the major food groups and desert. They layer on some new details that weren't extensively covered in the first book through the new characters, and we're privy to new parts of the Solar System that open up the world even more. If anything, Caliban's War does an even better job with working in the world, sustaining the storyline while not having to introduce the reader to a completely new world and storyline. If anything, it's more focused and to the point, while covering a lot of ground towards what is building up to be an epic time in the solar system.

I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, and Caliban’s War is a fantastic addition to what I suspect will be a great series of books. For all of the talk about science fiction going away in favor of urban fantasy or some other spectrum of speculative fiction, it does a great job showing that the stories that can be told in space aren’t going anywhere, all while blending great storytelling and characters, and giving us a new world to look forward to revisiting.

Leviathan Wakes by James A. Corey

If you like Space Opera, this will be the book for you: Leviathan Wakes, by author James A. Corey (a collaboration between Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Spanning much of our solar system, it's an epic story in a reasonably near future, with an excellently conceived of environment and a fun story that is both action packed and thoughtful. Leviathan Wakes is the embodiment of what good space opera should be: there's a bit of a scientific background that helps to inform the plot, but the focus of this story is on the characters and major events that blast the story forward.

As such, Leviathan Wakes works on a number of levels. Throughout the story, the influence of two authors who have been identified strongly with the fantasy genre is clear in the text: there is a wide, sweeping and epic sense to the world that's been constructed here, and the fingerprints feel very much like there's experience with fantasy here. This ranges from the somewhat tired: some of the characters feel almost a little too forced with the world-weary or tough guy things that some modern fantasy novels seem to be saddled with, to the good: the world building and scale of the storyline, which seems to grow and grow.

In a large sense, a space opera story has far more in common with a fantasy novel, as opposed to a straight up science fiction novel, although Leviathan Wakes feels at times like it's caught between the two, for better and worse: for most of the story, it's evenly balanced between the two, and it works very well from that standpoint: the science helps to inform the rules of The Expanse, while the fantastic elements get taken over by the story and its own momentum. In a recent blog post somewhere, someone made the comment that Orbit was betting that a recent offer of a free ebook copy of Leviathan Wakes paired with a copy of Abraham's book The Dragon's Path would pull in a crossover audience from the fantasy fans, and after reading through this, I can easily believe it.

Leviathan Wakes stands out amongst a lot of books for the world-building efforts that have been put together for this story. In this far future, humanity hasn't quite made it out to the stars, but they've made it out into the neighborhood: Earth's Moon, Mars, (Venus had abortive attempts), the asteroid belt, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and as far out as some of the moons of Neptune, all have some element of human habitation, with a wonderfully rich human society living and working within our solar system. Self-sustaining governments have grown up with their own cultures, and the book really shines by adding in an enormous depth to the environment in which the story is placed: it helps turn what would be a fairly average novel into something that really stuck in my head, and makes me biting at the bit for the next installments in the projected three book series.

The story that's settled in the world is one that works well: the destruction of a ship travelling through the solar system on a transit run, when they come across an abandoned ship, The Scopuli. When their ship is destroyed, a wave of outrage runs across the solar system, angering two sides of a brewing conflict, and pitting the Belters, Earthers and Martians against one another. At the same time, a cop is tasked with tracking down a girl for a family, bringing him on another track towards The Scopuli, and soon, the main characters are caught between revolution and corporate interests. The story really surprised me at points as the authors angled things in unexpected ways, and they manage to pack quite a bit into the pages. The book falls roughly into three parts (and I thought that it could have transitioned a bit better between each of the acts), that bring the story higher and higher to the end, and the entire thing is really a rush from beginning to end.

If there's any fault with the book, it's in the execution, where it felt like some of the book could have been trimmed down from its lengthily page count (almost 600 pages in my copy), and at some points, it feels as if there's parts that are just far too wordy, with excess exposition and explanation that didn't necessarily need to be present.

This book is one that I'll predict will divide audiences along a science fiction / space opera divide. The science here exists mainly in the background: there's some plausible elements here, as well as the usual grain of salt, as ships careen back and forth between the Belt and various planets, with some token explanations, but it's not the central focus of the story. People will fall on either side, either advocating for a stronger or more realistic setting for the stories, and people who might argue that it's not necessarily all that important to the story and that it should be enjoyed on its own merits. Coming to the end, I think that the latter argument holds up a bit better, but I'm happy to see that the authors have given a bit to support it in some measure of reality.

At the end of the day, Leviathan Wakes was a book that I really enjoyed: there wasn't a moment that I found myself really bored, and few occasions wondering why the book was drifting aimlessly: we've got a fun space opera story that's created one hell of a world to play in, with this story thundering out the gates, all guns ablaze, while touching on everything from military science fiction to romantic entanglements, and I'm already awaiting to see what happens next in The Expanse.