Abaddon’s Gate: A great ride!

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsAbaddon’s Gate by James S.A. CoreyAbaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

After reading the first two books in James S. A. Corey’s EXPANSE series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, I came to book three, Abaddon’s Gate, with some pretty solid expectations. How did Corey (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) do, based on strengths I highlighted in reviews of the first two books?

  • fluid prose: check
  • likable characters: check
  • mostly strong characterization: check
  • humor that runs throughout: check
  • a nice balance of shoot-em-up action, political fighting, and personal conflicts: check, check, and check
  • a quick pace that had me knock of a 500+ page book in a single setting: check
  • a feel (in a good way) of old-time sci-fi along the likes of Heinlein or Asimov: check
  • a ratcheting up of tension and stakes: check and check
  • a real sense of risk thanks to not all the characters making it to the end? check
  • an ending with both some resolution and an opening up that will leave you waiting for the next one? Check and damn-you-check

These guys are so consistent, I could probably already review book four by just cutting and pasting the above and changing the title. (Hmmm, note to self… )

Abaddon’s Gate picks up a few months after the events of Caliban’s War (and you’ll definitely want to read these in order) with the same set of characters — Captain Jim Holden and his crew: Naomi, Alex, and Amos. Flush with cash after a series of freelance space jobs, they’ve upgraded both their ship — the Rocinante — and their lives. But when the Martian government starts legal proceedings to reclaim the Rocinante, Holden and his people take the last job in the universe they wanted: escorting a media crew to the huge mysterious ring structure assembled out near Uranus by the alien protomolecule from Caliban’s War. The same protomolecule that killed a former detective named Miller who now keeps appearing to Holden to make incomprehensible but vaguely ominous pronouncements. Did I mention you’ll want to read these in order?

Holden’s ship isn’t the only one heading out to investigate the Ring. Both Mars and Earth, fresh off their recent quick little war, have sent out a fleet of military ships. Accompanying the Earth fleet is a supply ship that includes artists and religious leaders. Meanwhile, the Outer Planets Association, not wanting to be left out of the Great Game, is sending the Behemoth — its first (barely running) battleship: a huge repurposed-on-the-fly generation ship originally meant for Mormons planning a centuries-long trip to the stars. Aboard these ships are several new point-of-view characters, including Pastor Anna, who wants to know what the appearance of the Ring and the proof of alien life means for humanity’s vision of religion and god; Bull, the chief of security on the Behemoth; and Melba, a bent-on-revenge terrorist whose sister was killed by the protomolecule and whose family was destroyed by Holden’s actions in Caliban’s War (see earlier comment re reading books in order).

What happens at the Ring once all these players converge will affect not only these individual characters, but also all of humanity. And not in any abstract, indirect, or metaphorical sense either. Along the way, readers will encounter space battles, hand-to-hand combat, mutinies, terrible acts of terrorism, wrenching deaths, philosophical discussions regarding faith, redemption, and forgiveness; fart jokes (OK, one), an epic moment of mind-blowing grandeur and scale; lots of humor (not involving farts), acts of cowardice, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement; acts of compassion, empathy, bravery, and self-sacrifice. All dealt out smoothly and confidently, with barely an issue to complain about.

Characterization, as mentioned, is mostly excellent. The characters we’ve come to know show us different aspects and continue to grow either as individuals or as part of an integrated whole: as a crew, as a romantic relationship, as friends. The new characters nicely balance out Holden and his crew (who are sort of the old-style, too-good to be true, type characters). Bull somewhat replaces Miller’s more hard-bitten style, while Pastor Anna offers up a slower-paced, more reflective, more intellectual and spiritual aspect. Melba, meanwhile, gives us both a villain and, as the book continues, a deeply conflicting character. I won’t say more so as not to spoil things, but I will say the authors take a real risk with her as a character and I’m actually still mulling over what I think about her storyline. It’s discomfiting, at the least, and thus brings a strong edge to the reading experience.

The plot zips along at a greatly controlled pace: fast and exhilarating much of the time, but willing to slow down when necessary. The tension builds throughout and suspense is often taut as characters move from one near-disaster (or just disaster) to another. The anxiety is further heightened by what is constantly haunting everyone in the background: both the knowledge of the just-ended war among the three groups and the lack of knowledge regarding this huge alien structure staring them all in the face.

My complaints, as noted, were few. At the end, maybe the last 50-75 pages or so, there was a bit too much of smart people not doing smart things so as to allow for certain plot points. And one or two of the characters, particularly the captain of the Behemoth, were not as fully individualized as the other characters. Of the two, the former bothered me much more and did pull me out of the novel now and then in one of those “Now why would they have done that” or “Why wouldn’t they just…” kind of moments.

Save for those two issues, really restricted to a small portion of the novel, Abaddon’s Gate was a great ride throughout and a worthy follow-up to the first two books. And as with each of those, while it does give a nice sense of closure to many questions that have arisen to this point, it also opens up the story potential going forward. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next one. Heck, I might as well read it; I’ve already reviewed it, right?

Highly recommended.

Release date: June 4, 2013 | Series: The Expanse (Book 3). For generations, the solar system — Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt — was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus’s orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless dark.Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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