Tuesday, March 8, 2016

2012: CALIBAN'S WAR by James S. A. Corey

The second book in the Expanse series has much in common with the first. For one, it carries on many of the best qualities of Leviathan Wakes - it is an exceptionally fast-paced page-turner with some compelling characters and ideas. It is also, at times, perhaps a little too much like that book in plot and themes.

I don't want to get too deep into the plot because my general spoiler-avoidance policy applies to the series as well as this book. Basically, there are tense relations between Earth and Mars that come to a head with an attack on Ganymede - an attack that is also connected to some of the evil corporate hijinks from the previous novel. The attack involves a power-suited Martian space marine named Bobbie Draper (is this a Mad Men reference?). In the midst of the attack, a botanist named Praxidlike Meng discovers that his young daughter has been kidnapped by evil scientists. And there's an Earth diplomat named Avasarala who is beginning to realize that there are some nefarious goings-on within the UN government. Eventually, all of these characters will come together with the surviving heroes of the first book to investigate the attack and the kidnapping, and to get involved in some naval-style space warfare.

So, yes, exciting and fast-paced. But, it is also a bit of a replay of the first novel. A character is obsessively looking for a missing girl. An evil corporation is experimenting with alien life. All of the characters will come together for a couple of action set-pieces. And Something Big will happen at the end that Changes Everything. The biggest problem with the replay here is that it means putting off dealing with the previous book's Something Big for basically this entire novel. I was really looking forward to dealing with that here.

The new characters add some diversity (in race and gender, but also in their more general point of view), but they do bring up one other complaint: everyone in these books is hyper-competent. This is a standard problem with thrillers and genre fiction, but Avasarala makes it especially clear here. We're constantly told that her political skills let her read incredibly subtle clues and game out scenarios dozens of moves ahead. As someone who pays attention to politics, I would not say incredible empathy and foresight are skills that many politicians possess to some preternatural degree. Then again, at no point do this books really make a claim of gritty realism, so maybe I shouldn't pick at that particular nit.

Despite some negatives, the Expanse remains a very enjoyable series, and, as easy reads, these books are ideal for my return to novel reading after my fairly long break.

Grade: B