Caliban’s War is the second book in the EXPANSE series, co-authored by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the shared pen name of James S. Corey. Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, was a great read and while Caliban’s War didn’t impress me quite as much, it was still thoroughly enjoyable throughout. So much so that I read it straight through in a single sitting. Because you’ll really want to read Leviathan Wakes first, this review will be predicated on that assumption. Thus there will be spoilers for that first novel; you’ve been warned.
Caliban’s War is set just a little bit after the events of Leviathan Wakes, and so the solar system is still riven by long-running tensions among the big three players: Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets. The events of Leviathan Wakes ratcheted that tension up exponentially and also added a fourth player — the “protomolecule” which was crashed into Venus and is now altering that planet in major and incompressible ways. Things remain balanced on the knife edge of war and once again, the crew of the Rocinante, captained by James Holden, ends up smack dab in the middle. Their storyline is presented via Holden’s point of view.
The precipitating event in Caliban’s War is the appearance of a protomolecule “monster” on Ganymede that slaughters all but one of a contingent of marines. The sole survivor, Bobbie, becomes another POV. She eventually ends up working for Avasarala, a UN diplomat trying to hold off war and figure out what happened on Ganymede and who was responsible; she becomes our third POV. Our last POV is Prax, a Ganymede botanist whose sick daughter was kidnapped, a crime seemingly related somehow to the prototmolecule. Prax ends up with Holden and his crew then eventually all four POV characters end up together as their storylines dovetail.
The characters that return from Leviathan Wakes are nicely deepened in this follow-up (I was an especial fan of Amos in this one), both in their individual constructs and in their relationships with each other. Sometimes, I’ll admit, the portrayal may have bordered a bit on the overly-sentimental, but for the most part I enjoyed how the characters were made more complex via back stories, by their changing relationships, or by their realizations about themselves. The new characters vary a bit in effect. Prax is understated and a bit one-note (understandably so in that he’s focused on his daughter), but there’s a certain charm to him. Bobbie is more interesting as we watch her deal with the trauma of survival, thrash around in the utterly foreign world of diplomacy, and try to handle the concept and actuality of shifting alliances. The dominant personality, however, is certainly Avasarala, who often just takes over, both literally in the book’s plot and for the reader as well. She’s a great creation and the book really sparks to life when she’s online.
That isn’t to say the other parts lag. As mentioned, I zoomed through Caliban’s War in one sitting and that’s due to a host of reasons, including the book’s pace which especially picks up in the second half. Other reasons for not putting it down include the fluidity of the prose, the likable characters, the mostly strong characterization, and the humor that runs throughout, which often had me chuckling aloud.
There’s a nice balance of shoot-em-up action (pitched gun battled, spaceship battles, etc.), political fighting (factions within factions, negotiations between parties), and personal conflicts (romance going sour, friendships being tested, war within oneself). Pretty much there’s something for everyone here.
Why Caliban’s War didn’t quite match Leviathan’s Wake for me was that it at times didn’t feel as fresh. We’re dealing with yet another protomolecule (though in a different form), yet more possible corporate bad guys, more corruption at the top, more facing down officialdom, and so on. It obviously didn’t detract much from my experience since I didn’t want to put the book down, but it did give me that been-there done-that feel now and then. Not all the way through, but on occasion. The new POVs and the larger focus on the diplomatic/political side helped overcome that issue, as did Holden’s more introspective moments.
Finally, while we get some resolution in Caliban’s War, as we did with Leviathan Wakes, just as with that first book we’re clearly looking ahead to another. And while I wouldn’t call this a “cliffhanger” ending, it does have a great one that already has me jonesing for book three. Highly recommended.