This June, Cibola Burn, the fourth Expanse novel, is published. Having read, devoured and loved the first last year, Leviathan Wakes, I was determined to read the next two, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, before this June deadline. It turned out that I finished them both well in advance. The reason for this is very simple. Expanse is an outstanding SF series, propelled by adventure, peril and personalities – a veritable tour de force in space.
I was originally going to write a combined review of the second and third books but reconsidered due to the spoiler risk. As always with a series, you really do need to start at the beginning. These books would not do well as standalones, continuing immediately where the last left off, and this review presupposes that you’ve read and enjoyed the fantastic Leviathan Wakes. If you haven’t, then I really suggest you do – the clock to June and Book 4 is ticking!
One of the reasons for the appeal of the Expanse novels is that as they begin they’re confined to our solar system. There is no warp drive. The mineral-rich asteroid belt represents the limit of human exploitation, populated by the belters – elongated men and women who could no more live on Earth than you or I could live underwater. This is a volatile solar system, divided uneasily between Belters, Earthers and Martians. All are militaristic to varying degrees, all are suspicious, xenophobic even, and all want what the others have. When the protomolecule turns up – or, more to the point, wakes up – it’s no surprise that the situation explodes, quite literally.
Our focus in Leviathan Wakes were Holden, a renegade Earther captain who lights the spark and as a result has the entire solar system after him, and Miller, a Belter detective obsessed with discovering the fate of Julie Mao, a rich girl and adventurer from Earth who is one of the first to fall victim to the protomolecule. You really need to have read Leviathan Wakes to appreciate just how this turns out. But as Caliban’s War begins, the uneasy status quo that followed the settlement of the protomolecule onto Venus is abruptly shattered by an attack on Ganymede. Jupiter’s moon is the larder of the solar system, not only producing vast quantities of food but also providing the birthplace of choice for many expectant mothers. An attack on Martian supermarines coincides with the abduction of a number of children. Suspicion and fear result and Earthers and Martians open fire on each other. It’s soon clear that the protomolecule may have made another move. Where it is heading and how many other humans it will transform into organic juice and dismembered zombies in its unknowable mission is a mystery. Holden, possibly the only person with the slightest chance of communing with this monstrous entity, sets off to find out.
Holden and his small crew is again the main focus of Caliban’s War but his story is interspersed with chapters which follow a host of other personalities. And they’re goodies. Martian marine Bobbie (a giant of a woman), foul-mouthed UN Earther politician (and gentle grandmother) Avasarala and Ganymede scientist Prax, whose daughter is among the abducted, are the principal new characters. Each has a distinctive voice and each has their own path that leads them to Holden and the pursuit of the protomolecule. Arguably, Bobbie and Avasarala steal the show here. They are huge personalities and also extremely likeable.
Caliban’s War, just like Leviathan Wakes, raises the pulse from start to finish. It is stuffed full of action and the most dramatic set scenes, which is hardly surprising considering the hostility between Earthers and Martians. The tension between planets is matched by the unease between individuals, plus the quieter drive of these people to find peace in their private lives, all threatened as they are by this fearsome alien protomolecule.
As before, the narrative switches between the main protagonists, all the time bringing their stories closer to one another, until the most thrilling climax. Caliban’s War is as good as Leviathan Wakes, which is no mean feat, and its edge of the seat finale leads perfectly to Abaddon’s Gate during which one hopes more will be revealed about this ancient, terrifying and anonymous threat to human life. This is a great series – big, fast, ambitious, hugely fun and thrilling, and totally addictive.
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse 1)
A review of Abaddon’s Gate (Book 3) will follow shortly.