I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
While there might be spoilers for the previous books in the series, I will try my best to avoid any in this review: to do otherwise would be a huge disservice to anyone reading this.
More than many of its predecessors, this new installment in The Expanse series took me through an emotional rollercoaster that left me breathless, and often reeling in shock – starting with the opening sentence that is nothing short of a violent punch in the gut. And I freely admit feeling more than a little incensed at the authors for leading with that…
Story-wise, the galaxy is far from a happy place: granted, it was no unicorns and rainbows before, when Earth, Mars and the Belt were at each other’s throat and the protomolecule ran amok throughout the Solar System, but after the all-to-brief respite enjoyed by humanity in the hiatus between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising, the arrival of Duarte’s fleet and the founding of the Laconian Empire with its dictatorial iron fist have plunged mankind’s origin worlds and its many colonies into dark times indeed. The situation becomes even grimmer when the Laconians’ drive for expansion and dominance meets once again with the mysterious entity that once vanquished the protomolecule engineers: the show of force dictated by Duarte provokes a dramatic reaction that threatens the humans’ tenuous foothold on the many worlds beyond the alien gates and their continued survival, while giving the underground resistance a feeble chance to strike the kind of blow that might change the balance of power.
As for the Roci’s crew, they are scattered to the four winds: Holden is Duarte’s prisoner on Laconia; Bobbi and Alex, who have signed up with the resistance, are playing a dangerous game of sneak attacks on the enemy fleet; Naomi is doing her part by keeping the rebel network functioning and thriving, and Amos has been out of touch after undertaking a dangerous mission following Clarissa’s death. Our heroes are quite aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of their struggle, and sometimes the temptation to leave it all behind, to find some quiet place to burrow down and live the rest of their lives in peace, makes itself felt and causes some tension among them, but never in such a measure as to bring them apart despite the wear and tear of life on the trenches. For his part, Holden is not resigned to his prisoner-disguised-as guest situation, and still manages some small measure of defiance that shows he has not given up either on the struggle or the hope of one day being instrumental in the downfall of Laconia.
What becomes clear, as we follow the main characters’ individual journeys, is that the sense of family they built by living and working together for so long is too strong to succumb to the separation imposed by vast distances and the different paths taken: even when they are million of miles apart it’s as if they still shared space on the Roci, so that they still quote an absent friend’s catchphrase at the appropriate moment, or recollect their gestures or expressions in the face of similar occurrences. It’s a way to keep alive the memory of those who are far away and to show that the bonds that tie them together are strong and vital: I found myself deeply touched reading such passages, not just because they worked so well in the economy of the story, but because the Roci’s crew has grown on me so much that I have long since stopped envisioning them simply as fictional characters, and they have become living and breathing people I keep caring about.
Alongside our old friends we see the story through some new – or newfound – points of view: Elvi Okoye, the scientist we met in Cibola Burn, is now working for the Laconian military in what she believes is a mission of discovery beyond the alien gates and instead turns out to be something quite different. Much as I did not care overmuch for her character in that first encounter, here I greatly enjoyed her point of view, mainly the fine line she and her husband have to walk, balancing the needs of scientific study with the goals of the hierarchy, especially the Laconian expansionist and merciless military. Looking through her eyes gives us a measure of what it means living under an oppressive regime that likes to paint itself as benevolent and enlightened while it conducts appalling experiments on human subjects, and I managed to sympathize with her dilemma between the drive of scientific curiosity and the need to adhere to ethical standards: Elvi gains a good number of facets here, and I always welcomed her p.o.v. chapters with great interest.
The new addition is represented by Teresa Duarte, the teenaged daughter of the High Consul and the heir-in-training to the empire: her path takes her from basking in the illusion of a charmed life to waking up to far starker reality that forces her to grow up much faster than her already peculiar position previously required her to. Teresa is an interesting character and in some way her journey mirrors Elvi’s in reverse: having been indoctrinated from birth to believe that Laconia is a force for good, she has to wake up to reality bit by bit, and probably the major factor in this change of perspective comes from a dramatic event that undermines the belief in freedom of choice she had given for granted until that moment. I realize how cryptic this sounds, but there is a huge spoiler here, and all I can say about it is that this narrative thread was another of those gut-punches I mentioned before, one of the many that the authors deliver in this latest Expanse installment.
But of course my favorite character remains Naomi Nagata: I’ve always envisioned her as a mixture of strength and wistfulness, the latter tied to past experiences and mistakes that still prey on her mind, and in this novel she still tries to temper the underground’s penchant for violent action by being the voice of reason. It’s clear that this desire comes both from the weight of her past and the need to keep faith with Holden’s vision – a means to keep his legacy alive and to lessen the sting of his absence: for this reason Naomi chooses to isolate herself, to work in a sort of bubble – both physical and mental – that page after page takes on the aspect of a chrysalis in which she undergoes a change, one that will become evident as the events unfold and will transform her in a very unexpected way. Again, I apologize for the vagueness with which I’m expressing this, but I want you to enjoy this journey on your own, and if you are Team Naomi like I am, you will certainly want to explore this with as little prior knowledge as possible. You will not be disappointed.
If the characters, old and new, are the backbone of the story, the story itself is a constant escalation of events that become more and more pressing as the stakes pile up in a breath-stealing progression that moves inexorably toward the final showdown, and a further change of perspective in a series that bases its very strength in such changes. Be prepared for some painful shocks as well, and a constant worry about what is going to happen next: given the premises carried from the past installments and those contained in Tiamat’s Wrath, the ninth and final book in this amazing series will certainly blow our minds.
And I can’t wait to read it…