Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
Book Two of the Expanse
Published by Orbit, June 2012
ISBN: 9 781 841 4999 01
Review by Mark Yon
Last year’s Leviathan Wakes was pretty well received on the whole (though some did question its science.) Not only was it one of the Locus Books of the year and a Hugo nominee, it was one of our SFFWorld SF Books of 2011, on the part of Rob and myself. So this sequel is much awaited, and not just by us.
Set a few months after Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War moves things along on a bigger and grander scale. Some of the events of Leviathan Wakes continue to make their mark. The planet Venus is being altered by the protomolecule that threatened Earth in Leviathan Wakes. James Holden and his crew on the Rocinante are involved in OCP supply runs, bringing aid to beleaguered places such as Ganymede, whilst the war between Earth and Mars continues with the Belter worlds and the outer planets holding together an uneasy autonomy.
Whereas last time the tale was mainly told from space pilot Holden and detective Miller’s points of view, this time we have just Holden’s but added to that are the characters of Bobbie, a Martian soldier who is the sole survivor of a massacre on Ganymede, Avasarala, a diplomat trying to bring the Earth-Mars-Outer planets dispute to an end, and Praxidike/Prax, a scientist on Ganymede whose daughter is mysteriously kidnapped just before a solar mirror crashed down on the planet-sized moon of Jupiter. It seems that the disaster may have been an attempt to cover the kidnapper’s tracks, and like on Eros in Leviathan Wakes, the actions of multi-corporations are again suspected.
So: bigger range of characters, bigger vision, more complex plot. The book really benefits from these new points of view. The new characters are generally great, from the potty-mouthed granny figure that is Avasarala, to the stubborn fish-out-of-water character of Bobbie who finds that political fighting can be as bad as real warfare, and Prax who spends most of the novel being used in a battle of hearts and minds as the politics and the fighting starts.
Interestingly, the authors have improved some of the characters we have met before – most especially Holden, who, as less of a Dan Dare type hero this time around, I appreciated much more than I did in Leviathan Wakes. Having got to know the characters in the previous novel, Caliban’s War is where the books build on the friendship between Holden and the rest of his crew to keep things together. This works especially with Naomi, but also Alex and Amos. Their mutual affection reminded me here of Chris Wooding’s Ketty Jay series. Like that series, friendships are tested here, and the outcome is not always pleasant.
As the plot quickens at the midway point – the protomolecule spreads, there’s fighting around Ganymede and Holden begins to suspect that an ally is not what he seems to be – the book steps up a notch. It’s not easy juggling all these aspects but it is done well on the whole.
On the down side, the rotation of each chapter between the characters can be quite wearying. The space of the plot is fast, which is good, but often this speed can be used to cover up some of the contrivances, as it is here. There were times when a couple of the plot points seemed a little too coincidental: the meeting of Holden and Prax was just a little too convenient, as was the speed at which Holden took on Prax’s plea for help.
However, as the plot becomes more complex, it cannot be denied that it is an engaging read.
You need to really read Leviathan Wakes first. But those who enjoyed the first book will enjoy Caliban’s War as much, if not more, than the first book. As revelation after revelation is revealed, the pace of the novel keeps those pages turning, and there’s a very interesting event at the end that is the precursor to the next book.
If Leviathan Wakes was Star Wars (fast pace, great action, lots of running about on a space station) then this is The Empire Strikes Back (better script, more complex characters and more intricate plot, based in an ice station and a space ship rather than on a space station.)
A crackingly enjoyable read that I’m pleased to say didn’t let me down.
Mark Yon, June 2012.