Eight months ago I read and reviewed the first book in The Expanse Trilogy, Leviathan Wakes. Written by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), the story was a 600-page world-building opener that set a stage where humans have moved out into the solar system, set up homes and workplaces among the asteroid belts and various moons of Jupiter, and established a fragile government of sorts that is still not completely recognized by the ruling bodies of Earth and Mars.
Please note: If you haven’t read Leviathan Wakes (LW), then the second book, Caliban’s War (CW), is definitely not the place to start. Yes, there are discussions that briefly mention certain events from Leviathan Wakes in this story between a handful of major and minor characters, but the authors have avoided doing one of my least favorite things when it comes to book series, and that’s summarizing or using weak dialogue early in a follow-up book to tell what should most obviously be told in the earlier books. (I absolutely despise introductory chapters that try to take a 600 page book and condense it down to five or six pages of catch-up content. I also hate it when the characters sit around talking about earlier books’ events in Chapter 1 as a cheap tool to get a reader up to speed.) Thankfully, Abraham and Franck know they’ve got a lot of story to tell in Caliban’s War and don’t waste their readers’ time filling in backstory.
So, back to to the second book. Once again, the authors have taken 600 pages of story and filled it with believable characters who work on ships and live in habitats that are easy to visualize because they’re so realistically described. Without giving away too much about the first book, I can tell you that CW once again follows along with Captain Holden and his crew as they struggle to make a living working for the newly formed OPA — Outer Planets Alliance. Holden isn’t a welcome man anymore back on Earth (his home), mainly due to one very large and very major plot point from LW. And when I say large…
But let’s not ruin that surprise for any of you who might be checking out LW before moving on to CW. What can I tell you about CW that won’t spoil either book for you? Quite a bit, actually. First, the book has some really great political intrigue going on between Earth, Mars, and the OPA. This has been going on since LW, but now that the OPA has legs and actual teeth (to an extent), the three power organizations are having to figure out how to best divvy up the remaining resources that are being hotly contested for control. A key resource that also happens to be an actual home to human beings is Ganymede, the chief food supplier for all the Belt and beyond. When CW opens, two military forces (UN and Martian) are pulling a standard DMZ routine, staring at each other across a short distance on Ganymede. It’s boring, and Mars Marine Robert (Bobbie) Draper has found herself as one of the two peacekeeper groups stationed on Ganymede as Earth and Mars maneuver to try and maintain a position of ownership… and thus a hand in OTA business. But a horrific attack on both groups leaves Bobbie as the sole survivor, with both sides questioning who is responsible. Earth? Mars? The OTA? But a 600 page book isn’t going to offer up a simple answer, and now CW is getting really good, with key players on all sides trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the surprise attack.
Surprisingly, one of the major subplots of the book (a missing girl — again) turns out to be the story that pulls all other subplots together. And there are some doozy subplots. I have to be careful not to share any spoilers here, but let me just tell you that Earth, Mars, and the OTA may very well have a bigger, more ominous enemy looking to stir them all up with infighting and distract them from a real and fast-evolving threat.
My earlier review of LW mentioned a few of my favorite things about this science fiction series: There’s no complex alien-human relationship that must be explained up-front. There’s no super-technology that has put humans on other planets. And there are no sub-micron dual-array gravitonic torpedoes with quantum detonation packages. Nope… none of that.
I’m happy to report that the authors have continued to rely solely on believable human personalities and technology that is easily recognizable. They do take a rather large stretch early in the book with the introduction of something that one could argue breaks these conventions… but just hang in there. As many movies and books have shown us, everything will be cleared up by story’s end.
Caliban’s War is the second book in The Expanse Trilogy. (I’ve not yet found anyone or any website that confirms or denies further books in the series, so I’m sticking with trilogy as that’s what I’d originally heard when I first got word of the series.) It does exactly what a second book is supposed to do — take the overall story deeper, give the characters a sense of deep dread and concerns about a happy ending, and leave the readers wondering just how in the world the final book will pull it all together and resolve all the complex subplots (that aren’t resolved in CW).
I’ve read back over my review here, and I realize I really haven’t told you much about the actual story taking place in Caliban’s War. Good. That was my intent. I really don’t want to ruin any of the surprises for those of you who have already read Leviathan Wakes. And there are a number of them here. I can tell you to expect to spend a lot more time learning about the political goings-on between Earth and Mars. I can also tell you that the events in LW have set up a chain reaction that will quickly become the primary storyline (I believe) for the third book, Abaddon’s Gate. Expect to despise a small number of characters and worry about the fates of a larger number of sympathetic characters. These are big books, and once you get into either story you should expect to be hooked. Great characters, excellent dialogue, memorable fights, freakish experiments, and twisty-turny mysteries — sometimes you’re lucky to get a few of those in a good book series. Only an excellent book series can pull them all off, and The Expanse will definitely be added to the short list of science fiction tales that manage to do so.
Update: Ty Franck, one of the two writers of The Expanse series provided me with some more solid answers about the future of the series:
Just wanted to answer a question for you. We are contracted for six Expanse books right now. But our goal, if we can be said to have goals, is to make each novel satisfying on its own, and each trilogy satisfying by the conclusion. We also have five novella length ebooks coming out from Orbit short fiction, one to drop each six months in between the novel releases. The first is called Chemistry, and comes out in November.