I have always been a fan of Star Wars. I’m one of those fans that have actually read the books that extend the universe through rise and fall of Luke and Leia’s kids. Many authors have contributed to the Star Wars books, but the powers that be at LucasBooks does the work of making sure the story falls within the universe George Lucas dreamed up all those years ago. More than that, they make sure the universe feels like Star Wars. At its core, Star Wars is a space opera, a throwback to Buck Rogers and other characters like him. But what Lucas managed to do with Star Wars was meld the adventure and drama of a space opera with other genres. Star Wars really does have something for everyone.
I don’t read the books anymore. I did get through the arc that pits Luke, Leia and Han (and their kids) against a species from another universe called the Yuuzhan Vong. That’s some 40-odd books, which makes the Star Wars books the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single series. I have eclectic taste in books, so I’ve read many other books from most every genre out there (except Harlequinn romances. Those just aren’t my cup of tea). But space operas hold a special place in my heart. So when my best friend (also a Star Wars fan) mentioned a book he was reading that took a space opera and added in elements of gritty detective novels, political intrigue and alien horror, I couldn’t say no.
So I picked up the first space opera series I’ve read since Star Wars: The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. Corey, by the way, is actually two authors (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) writing under the single alias. In a bit of trivia, it turns out the two will be collaborating again to add their own addition to the Star Wars universe, under the same pen name. I love how books seem to connect us all.
The Expanse series includes Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate. The authors also wrote novellas that are set before the series and between the second and third book. A fourth book, Cibola Burn, is supposed to be published in June of this year. This review only covers the three main books of the series, since those are the only ones I’ve read.
Taking place in the near future, these novels are set in the time when humans have managed to escape the confines of Earth but have not yet developed the technology to move beyond the solar system. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of this series. Much of science fiction is set in the far future, where technology has given humanity the universe. You have to suspend your disbelief a great deal to accept the claims of most space-based science fiction. Not so with this series. In the Expanse universe, nothing about traveling through space is easy. In fact, traveling at speeds that Star Wars and Star Trek crews constantly do with ease often injures crews in this universe. And it makes perfect sense. Of course traveling at those G-Forces could kill you – we already know that they can right now. And of course, you have to flip your ship around and burn in the opposite direction to slow down because that’s really the only logical way to decelerate in space.
The politics and relations in the series are also completely believable. Instead of humanity existing in relative peace, facing down only great evil or conquering aliens, humanity has done what it always does: It has split into factions. Those that colonized Mars turned on Earth and declared independence. And those that have spent their lives on stations sprinkled throughout the “belt” have begun an independence movement of their own. The dynamics between these factions are quite fascinating, with appearance and language again forming the basis of prejudice in the future. And what the authors do to highlight these differences and then bridge them are also creative and inspiring. Because humanity is so fractured, it becomes vulnerable to an alien threat. And only through working together does humanity stand a chance.
Finally, the authors are skilled at creating fight scenes, both space-based and person-to-person conflicts. Not many authors can write action like that, especially space-based action. Few of the authors tapped for the Star Wars franchise have had luck with it, which makes me excited to grab the book Abraham and Franck will pen under the James S.A. Corey name.
Here’s my thoughts on each individual book. Sorry if things are vague. I expect you all to read these books so I really don’t want to spoil anything.
In the first installment we are introduced to the technology and political aspects of the series that I’ve already mentioned. We also meet the main characters, a mixed bag of Earthers, Martians and “Belters,” all revolving around Jim Holden, a naive executive officer of an ice miner whose sense of justice propels all the other players onto the board. This includes his crew (a Belter engineer, an ex-Martian-Army pilot and an incredibly loyal Belter given to violent outbursts), a Belter detective obsessively hunting for an Earther girl that has gone missing, and an Earther general turned revolutionary who is leading the Belter rebels in their battles to declare independence. Finally, there is the protomolecule, an alien particle that somehow has the ability to infect humans and do *something* to them (you’ll have the read the book to find out!).
I know it sounds confusing and impossible that one book can include so many disparate themes and a such a rich world with a well-thought-out setting, but I’m telling you it’s true. And the authors do a top-notch job of getting the reader to understand the world and its characters without beating you over the head with long, adjective-laden descriptions. The text just flows and nothing that you learn about the world detracts from the flow of the story or the logic of the plot. I simply can not gush enough about the talent of these writers!
Detective Miller, my favorite character of this book, is a wonderful homage to the broken film noir private investigators that we all know and love. Miller and Holden form an uneasy friendship when their paths cross in their separate investigations (Miller for his missing girl and Holden for those that destroyed his ship and unleashed the protomolecule). Their disparate views on justice make for some interesting conflict. In fact, the way characters interact with each other, especially the little family Holden makes for himself from his crew, are wonderful. I also love the way the authors show Miller thinking things through in his head through the use of what are essentially hallucinations.
The ending is heartbreaking, but also well thought out. Many books that have excellent action sequences eventually fizzle out when it comes to creating a thoughtful yet unexpected ending. This book nails it on the head, ending the book in a satisfying way without it being overly rushed or too easy. It also left me scrambling for more. Luckily I already the second book on hand.
I normally don’t love all the books in a series equally, and generally the middle book is my least favorite. Not so with this series. As with the first book, the characters are so believable that it’s hard not to get taken into their thrall. While some characters are repeats from the first book, a few great characters are introduced, including two incredibly strong and engaging female roles. First, Bobbie, a Martian soldier that is the only survivor of a monstrous being that seems to have similarities with the alien protomolecule introduced in Leviathan Wakes, allows the authors to delve into the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder, a particularly timely topic. The second woman is an Earther politician, Avasarala, who plays the backstabbing political game with an aplomb that you have to respect, especially when she ends up playing an integral role in the resolution of the novel’s central conflict. Like Miller from Leviathan Wakes, she is a flawed hero who must make difficult and seemingly stone-cold decisions to protect humanity.
What I dislike most about mid-series books is that they never seem to resolve anything. How can they when there is obviously another book coming? But, while the novels in this series can’t really stand alone, they do involve their own conflicts that are resolved by the end of each book. The only conflict that continues novel to novel is the rush to understand the alien entity, which we still don’t really understand by the end of Caliban’s War. But the authors do a good job of slowly developing that story while still making the novels fast-paced. This allows them to stretch the development of the alien story arc through multiple novels, while still providing action-packed story arcs that are resolved by each novel’s end.
Finally, Avasarala, the stone-cold politician with a heart, is my favorite character from this book.
Abaddon’s Gate provides new opportunities for the authors to again dive deep into the failures of humanity and find hope. The protomolecule has somehow constructed what is being called the Ring, which is apparently a portal to … somewhere. As humanity’s many factions and religious groups come together to study it (and figure out how to exploit it), Holden and his crew find themselves drawn into an explosive encounter with a mystery woman hot for revenge on them for ruining her family. Then things spiral out of control and they are forced to blast into the unknown of the Ring, with an armada of Earthers, Martians and Belters on their tail. Again, the factions must learn to work together and overcome petty political conflicts to survive.
This book explores the choices we make to rectify the past, the gap between faith and religious posturing, humanity’s propensity to react violently to that which we don’t understand, and coping with guilt. This book also finally offered a meaty villain, with layers that leave you unsure if you should hate her or forgive her. And it finally allowed me a view into my favorite character of the entire series: Amos, the violent but loyal mechanic that is part of Holden’s crew. Throughout the series he has been the one allowing the authors to explore the line between good and bad and I love that about him. If I could pick one character in the universe to have my back, it would be Amos. Plus he’s just so kick-ass!
Seriously, though. Read these books now. That way you’ll be all caught up when the fourth book publishes in June of this year.