James SA Corey

Expanse, book 2

Orbit (2012)

ISBN: 9781841499901

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

This review contains spoilers for Leviathan Wakes, the first in this series.

Leviathan Wakes centred primarily around two characters: James Holden, somewhat reluctant captain of a fairly small spaceship who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then things got worse; and a detective straight out of the pulps, whose obsession with finding a missing girl took him all sorts of interesting places and got him involved in some very, very messy stuff.

When Caliban’s War opens, Miller (the detective) is gone, and Holden is trying to figure out what to do with his now-smaller crew on his very shiny, somewhat illegal and quite fast Rocinante. But events begin with two completely new characters. In the Prologue, a young girl is taken from her creche and shown a man who is not a man; in chapter one, a Martian marine watches her platoon get slaughtered by something monstrous, which doesn’t react like it ought to. Both of these events indicate fairly obviously that the molecule that caused all the fuss in Leviathan, and which crashed on Venus at the end of that novel – but clearly didn’t get destroyed – is Up To Something. And we go from there. 

Mars and Earth are on the verge of war, while a little girl is missing. The political position of the outer planets and asteroids is of serious concern, as is the relationship between two crew members. What I really liked about this novel is that it manages to focus on the big and the small at the same time, without trivialising and without making one look pointless in comparison. Prax’s world is (quite literally) falling apart and he can’t find his daughter and this is a real, vital, and urgent problem that has to be dealt with. Meanwhile, how to keep incompetent politicians from muddling into a war – or, worse, deliberately starting one – consumes Avasarala’s night and day, as the assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration of the UN – a title that sounds empty but that really makes her one of the most powerful wheelers and dealers on the planet. These two plots get about equal time, and equal sympathy, which is a marvellous achievement – especially since they’re not the only parts in the whole. There’s also Bobbie, the Martian marine, and how she copes with being a survivor, as well as being turned into a political pawn; and Holden sticking his nose in where he knows it doesn’t belong, meanwhile maybe messing things up with Naomi. Plus, all of this is tied into That Alien Molecule.

The storyline might sound like it gets a bit complicated, but Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) keeps it well under control by cycling through the different points of view in distinct chapters, each of which is named after their character. I get that sometimes authors want the reader to be in the dark about who is speaking, but sometimes that’s just a pain in the butt, so I applaud this measure. The collision of the different plots, which you just know is going to happen, happens in occasionally surprising but consistently pleasing ways – it never feels forced, and the plots entwine and carry on organically, with individual threads not getting subsumed by what might be considered (by some) as more important matters.

Characters are one of the strengths of this writing team. Holden is the main carryover character, but despite the reader already knowing him fairly well he still manages to occasionally surprise, as he develops in response to new stimuli such as his position with Rocinante and Naomi and oh, his experience with nasty mutant alien things. Much of that development is for the worse, at least at first, but it’s real and sympathetically described – not just put in for shock value. Of the others, probably my least favourite is Prax, a biologist, and the one whose daughter is missing; he’s the least interesting exactly because he is so single-minded in what he needs to achieve. His personal degradation matching Ganymede’s is cleverly written, but I don’t find monomania that intriguing. Meanwhile, Avasarala and Bobbie tie for my favourites. Avasarala balances foul-mouthed, cynical, driven and obsessive politician with loving grandmother in totally believable ways, and makes me despair for world politics. Bobbie’s development is probably the most nuanced of all: she deals with the aftermath of her platoon’s destruction, with the tension between Mars and Earth, with politics she knows little about and cares for less, all outside of the marine corps which is the only place she’s ever wanted to be. There are some novels with shifting points of view where as a reader, I am tempted to skip some chapters to get to the interesting bit. That’s not a problem I faced here.

Finally, a note on world building. The tensions between Mars and Earth, and the Outer Planet Alliance, can be read to some extent as an extension of terrestrial politics over the last couple of centuries; Mars and Earth are superpowers, while the OPA are colonies beginning to buck the reins of their colonial masters. It’s not a straight transposition, of course, but the idea that some – especially Earth-based – politicians would attempt to treat the solar system as an extension of their own world definitely makes a sad sort of sense. Zooming in somewhat, Corey’s development of the way asteroids and moons could be made not just habitable for humanity but vital to humanity’s livelihood in space is beautifully detailed without being overdone. As is the fragility of those systems. And their vision of Earth? Brilliant – and one of the interesting points of optimism for the system as a whole, which I won’t describe because it would just take too long.

Overall? I enjoyed Leviathan, but this is even better.

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