Caliban’s War, James S.A. Corey’s follow-up to the Hugo-nominated Leviathan Wakes takes readers back to the well-realized world of The Expanse. It’s an all guns blazing thrill-ride that ups the stakes in the Expanse and keeps me wanting more.
Picking up several months after the events of its predecessor, we find James Holden, who had survived the Eros event and started a system-wide war between the various planetary factions, is now running missions for the Outer Planets Alliance. At the same time, Earth and Mars have returned to an uneasy relationship, with their forces ready to open up on one another across numerous fronts. Praxidike Meng, a botanist on the breadbasket of the Outer Planets, Ganymede, finds his daughter has been kidnapped after a mysterious threat is encountered by UN and Martian Marines. The two groups of Marines are attacked, leaving a single survivor: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, who is ordered to accompany Martian diplomats to Earth to sort out what happened. There, she meets Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN politician working to prevent outright war between various factions of the Solar System.
Where I’d describe Leviathan Wakes as a robust space opera story, Caliban’s War strays far closer to the Military Science Fiction subgenre. This book is packed with quite a bit of military action from the get-go, and throughout the novel, it’s approached in a well-thought-out way. When the bullets aren’t flying, we see a considerable amount of political work that help make up the backend of any military action, which keeps up a certain amount of tension and adds depth to the book as a whole. The result is a military science fiction novel that gets both the action and the motivations for fighting right on.
Following the end of Leviathan Wakes, with the death of one of the central characters, Corey introduces a number of new characters: notably, Bobbie, the Martian Marine gunnery sergeant who survives an early encounter with what appears to be a new form of the protomolocule. In addition to Bobbie, Praxidike Meng, a botanist from Ganymede plays a key role in the search for his daughter and Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN Undersecretary of Executive Administration have come in to accompany New Characters, trying to get everyone to listen to one another. As a whole, the entire group of new faces is a welcome one, keeping the relationships between the existing characters interesting. Each are nicely assembled with some familiar parts: the tough as nails Marine, the somewhat clueless scientist, and the hard ass politician, and have some other points that round them all out nicely: Bobbie suffering deeply from the loss of her platoon, and Avasarala’s about face personality when it comes to her grandchildren. Bobbie Draper in particular has become one of my favorite characters in the series thus far. Tough and determined, Draper is a great example of a strong female character that doesn’t really conform to a lot of the molds, and one that wasn’t thrown into the series to simply fill out the gender balance.
Caliban’s War follows a similar formula as Leviathan Wakes did: a girl vanishes, people attempt to find her, Holden tries to broadcast information to the solar system, all while big picture political elements are at work towards their own nefarious ends, before quite a lot of action happens. It’s not a bad formula to follow, and while the story doesn’t retell the first one, it does make it predictable at points. Following an exciting opening, the predictability allowed some of the necessary setup to slow down the book for a while, before the last act brings all of the diverse elements together and end the book with a bang. As the story accelerates towards the finish line, so to does the stakes, and this second novel becomes a fantastic bridge for the rest of the presumed trilogy. (There are a further four books and several short stories planned at this point). A major cliff-hanger moment down to the last line of the book makes me hope that at some point, HBO will pick up the books for a television series.
Like Leviathan’s Wake, the two authors who comprise James S.A. Corey, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, have done a knock-out job when it comes to the world that they’ve created. Hearty, durable and dripping with details, Caliban’s War gives you all of the major food groups and desert. They layer on some new details that weren’t extensively covered in the first book through the new characters, and we’re privy to new parts of the Solar System that open up the world even more. If anything, Caliban’s War does an even better job with working in the world, sustaining the storyline while not having to introduce the reader to a completely new world and storyline. If anything, it’s more focused and to the point, while covering a lot of ground towards what is building up to be an epic time in the solar system.
I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, and Caliban’s War is a fantastic addition to what I suspect will be a great series of books. For all of the talk about science fiction going away in favor of urban fantasy or some other spectrum of speculative fiction, it does a great job showing that the stories that can be told in space aren’t going anywhere, all while blending great storytelling and characters, and giving us a new world to look forward to revisiting.