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Sci-Fi Review: ‘Caliban’s War’ by James S A Corey

May contain spoilers for ‘Leviathan Wakes’.

I don’t read a lot of scifi these days, although it was my drug of choice for a decade or more, but I love Daniel Abraham’s fantasy works so this is a must-read for me. Written under a pseudonym with co-author Ty Franck, this is the second in the Expanse series. If the first had a sort of detective-noir feel to it, this one is much more classic space-opera, with space ships, inter-planetary alliances, zero-gravity battles, hi-tech weaponry and all the usual shenanigans, and although there is a bit of a mystery to solve, it’s no more than backdrop for the action. I suppose a lot of scifi falls into the traditional grooves, and this one feels like it’s made from the Firefly cookie cutter. Holden is the renegade captain (Mal), Alex the ace pilot (Wash without the dinosaurs), Naomi is Zoe and Amos is Jayne. There’s even a Kaylee, Sam the red-headed pixie on Tycho, but thank all the gods, there’s no lipsticky Inara. 


Holden is the sole point of view character retained for this outing; Miller, the shoot first forget the questions cop, was…. hmm, eaten by? killed by? absorbed by? the alien monster thingy in part one. We have three new main characters; Avasarala is an elderly diplomat from Earth, Prax is the botanist from the moon Ganymede, and Bobbie is the marine from Mars (sorry, just can’t say Martian marine, sounds too weird). These soon coalesce into two pairs and eventually overlap, and the authors manage to sweep the plot forward by deftly swapping from one to another. All four are interesting, well-drawn characters, and the minor characters are likeable too, especially Holden’s crew. Prax comes in handy for the sciencey bits, while Avasarala is pulling the political strings of the complex tensions between Earth, Mars, big business and the outer planets. And Bobbie? She makes one hell of a warrior babe, that’s all I can say.

The book seemed slow to get going, I thought. There was a lot of scene-setting and general background that wasn’t exactly filler, but didn’t seem to get very far, but to be fair, there are several new characters and a heap of backstory to get across. But almost imperceptibly the pace picks up and then we’re off into the usual action-packed whirlwind. There were a few creaky moments, when the rationale for a character to do something obviously essential for the plot seemed a bit dubious, but really, it doesn’t matter much. And just occasionally, when they do something completely and utterly in character, it feels absolutely punch-the-air glorious.

Although this is sci-fi, the technology is really not the point. It’s obvious that a great deal of research has been done behind the scenes, but it very rarely breaks out into impenetrable jargon, and even when it does, there is usually another character there to say, on the reader’s behalf, what does that mean, exactly? But none of it stretches credulity overmuch, and for me, as a fantasy fan, it’s no problem to accept the high-tech ‘magic’ of instant wound-repairing medical equipment or fancy weaponry, in the same way I accept wizards with healing spells, or a magic sword. The nature of the setting also lends itself to some very atmospheric moments peculiar to space opera – the zero-gravity bounces, the weird moons, the outside-the-ship moments, the sheer scale of the universe – which the authors convey very well.

My biggest complaint would be that too much of the plot hinges on finding and recovering unharmed Prax’s small daughter, Mei. Given the interstellar nature of the conflict and the countless unnamed minions who died along the way, it seems unrealistic to devote so much effort to one child. I appreciate the need to humanise the conflict, but it still seems excessive. There also seemed to be a lot of emphasis on individuals who got close to mental breakdown, either by highly stressed circumstances, or lack of sleep, or just personality. I’m not quite sure what purpose this served, except to ramp up the tension a bit. But these are small points.

The ending fell a little flat for me, seeming to be no more than a sequence of high tension encounters which were actually resolved very quickly, without any unexpected twists or great drama. The authors are very good at not spinning the action sequences out too far, but these felt almost abrupt. There were a few moments of near Galaxy-Quest-ness, but it’s hard to write this kind of stuff without evoking parody, and the authors deftly sidestepped the worst of it. And the dramatic reveal in the final paragraphs was hardly unpredictable – well, if I could see it coming, anyone could.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed most of the book, up until the last few chapters, even more than the previous one in the series. I liked Bobbie the marine, I liked the little romance Holden had going, I liked seeing more of Amos, Alex and Naomi (who make a great team), and Avasarala had all the best lines. The writing is taut, the pacing is perfect, and the authors ping-pong the plot between points of view effortlessly. And no, I have no idea who wrote which characters. A good entertaining read with plenty of action and a few moments of real depth lurking beneath all the drama. Four stars. [Originally published on Goodreads June 2012]

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood

The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

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Sci-Fi Review: ‘Leviathan Wakes’ by James S A Corey

I don’t read much scifi these days, but I’m a huge Daniel Abraham fan so this was a must-buy for me. Writing in collaboration with Ty Franck, this is a traditional Firefly-esque space opera with overtones of police procedural (sort of). Right from the start, the story grabs you and just never lets go, building pace and tension all the way to the unexpected twist ending (well, I didn’t see it coming, anyway, but like Abraham’s fantasy books, the outcome is one of those oh-of-course moments, rather than wait-what?).

I very much liked the use of only two alternating point of view characters to tell the story (with a prologue and epilogue featuring different people). The way the plot develops the two different storylines, and then merges them so that it seamlessly weaves from one viewpoint to the other is masterful. Both characters have depth and terrific personalities too. Holden is the righteous, almost naive, spaceship officer determined to do the correct thing. Miller is a borderline psychotic cop on an asteroid trading station, following his own train of deviant logic to pragmatic keeping-things-moving solutions. The collision between the two is inevitably fraught, but also deeply thought-provoking.
The world-building is breath-taking. The background is a solar system colonised by man and beginning to fragment, and every component part – the (asteroid) Belt, the various space ships and settlements – is beautifully realised and totally believable. The technology is not so complex or radical that it needs long explanations or a post-graduate level education to understand it. The minor characters and relationships are well-drawn and realistic, and I liked the way we are regularly reminded of the physical differences between planet-born and native Belters. Although this book reads as a stand-alone, there is enormous scope for developments in other parts of the solar system (Earth, the moon, Mars, the outer planets).
Like Abraham’s fantasy novels, this is a wonderful pacy read, with well-rounded characters, and an absorbing plot, with more depth to it than I expected from the initial reviews. It isn’t quite up to the stellar levels of ‘The Long Price’ (what is?), but it’s still a good 4 stars, and I look forward to more in the series. Four stars. [Originally posted on Goodreads August 2011]

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood

The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

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