The Expanse Trilogy – James S. A. Corey
James S.A. Corey is the pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the first best known for his Long Price Quartet and Dagger and the Coin series, and the second for his collaboration with GRR Martin. Together they have penned one of the best space opera series I ever read and, to my extreme satisfaction, are hard at work on a second one: talking with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards about the new book, I thought it was a good idea to share a few details about the first three volumes, so here we go…
What makes these books stand out is the human dimension of backgrounds and characters: the words space opera often make us think about vast empires, galaxy-spanning wars and wondrous technology, but this is not the case here. The theatre where the action unfolds is our own Solar System in an advanced stage of colonization, where the older and more established outposts – like the Moon or Mars – enjoy a comfortable way of life, while the newer ones, like the civilization growing in the Asteroid Belt, still deal with problems like microgravity and its deep effects on human physiology, or the rising prices of air and water in a hostile environment. Political and economical tensions are always one step away from flaring into all-out conflict, and there are forces working – more or less covertly – to tip the balance one way or the other. Add to that a few realistic details like communications lag across vast distances or the problems of space travel, which requires a constant battle against the pain of acceleration – endured through the use of drugs – and you have a very relatable universe, as are the characters that people it.
Summing up the story is far from easy, especially when trying to avoid any spoilers, so I’m not even going to try. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, follows mainly two characters: Miller – a middle-aged police officer who has lost all his drive and motivations, and wakes up only when what looks like an open-and-shut case he’s been assigned turns into something else, something both suspicious and frightening; and Holden, ex military now working on an ice cargo hauler: he’s the kind of person who wants to do the right thing, to be a good guy, and more often than not makes huge mistakes, with unpredictable consequences. The novel alternates chapters between these points of view until the two men meet and face an unforeseen danger that adds some touches of horror to the story. The other two books, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, expand on this core theme, widening the picture to include complex political scheming tied with economic interests, and convoluted games of power that still dare to go on despite an all-encompassing menace.
All this, however, is just background – a solid background, granted, that helps move the story along, often in unexpected directions. The real focus is on characters, on the way they deal with events, on the way physiological and mental changes affect people from the different habitats where human expansion brought them. One of the interesting aspects I encountered is indeed in these differences, because the physiological adaptation that has made the Belters thinner and taller than Earth norm, seems to have created a sort of racial differentiation that goes beyond skin color. In other words, we might go to space someday, but we will still bring our short-sightedness and prejudices along with us…
Most importantly, though, the novels deal with choices, with the often tragic consequences engendered by those choices, even when they are made with the best of intentions. Because we all know what paves the road to Hell, after all…
Holden, and his crew of almost-rogues, embody that concept very well: enmeshed against their will in something too big for them to handle, they try to do their best with the limited options at their disposal. In the first book there’s a marked antithesis between Holden and Miller, between idealism and the need to set things right on one side, and tired cynicism on the other, the bitter acceptance of the impossibility of seeing the “good guys” win. Despite their differences – or maybe because of them – these two men form a strange alliance that will be the one of the driving forces of the story.
This focus on humanity goes on in the following books, exploring more deeply the characters of Holden’s crew – a closely-knit group for whom I felt an immediate attachment – and several other players, big and small, who feel as fleshed-out and solid as the main protagonists. A special mention goes to the female characters, that the authors created without using a single strand of cliché in their DNA: Naomi, of the Rocinante’s crew, smart, though and outstandingly excellent in her job, gifted with a wry sense of humor; Martian marine Bobbie, steadfast and powerful, a fighter in more ways than one, but still possessed of a softer side; shrewd politician Avarasala, who knows how to wield her power, and can cuss like a hardened sailor; minister Anna, gifted with a steel resolve under the caring attitude. They are far from perfect, but I liked them exactly for this reason – because they feel real.
Given that each of the separate books of the trilogy managed to raise already hight stakes, it’s hardly surprising I was waiting with feverish anticipation to read the next installment (the first in a new trilogy, according to what I’ve read online): even though the main narrative threads have been brought to an end, many more have appeared and they would seem to point to a further widening of the picture, both in scope and in setting. Cybola Burn, the fourth volume, came out on June 5th and so far it looks very promising so… stay tuned for the forthcoming review!
My Rating: 9/10