Reaching the end of a beloved series is always a bittersweet experience (and the fact that the TV show inspired by this book series has also reached its final season adds to the feeling of loss, but I digress…), yet it’s also true that when a story comes to an end leaving readers wanting for more it means that the author has done an excellent job, and this is quite true for the highly successful, decade-long run of The Expanse.
At the close of the previous installment, the might of the Laconian empire had suffered a hard blow, compounded by the disappearance of its leader, High Consul Duarte, and the crew of the Rocinante had finally reunited, taking with them Duarte’s daughter, Teresa. Elsewhere, scientist Elvi Okoye continued her studies on the protomolecule creators and on the mysterious entities that obliterated them and that still represented a clear and present danger for everyone.
Leviathan Falls opens with the desperate search for Duarte, introducing a new character in the person of Colonel Tanaka, a ruthless, cold-blooded operative who is given carte blanche to recover the Laconian leader and who clearly enjoys the unfettered freedom about collateral damage she’s given: her cat-and-mouse game with the Rocinante’s crew showcases very well her callousness but also her tunnel vision where Holden & Co. are concerned, because their longtime experience with difficult situations (together with a good amount of luck) has gifted them with the kind of flexibility that allows them to thwart Tanaka’s plans time and again. And I for one have to admit that witnessing the Colonel’s angry frustration was quite satisfying, since she’s the kind of character that I just love to hate…
The stakes, in this final book, are of course high: though diminished, the Laconian empire is still a force to be reckoned with; the rebellious systems, coordinated by Naomi Nagata, lack the resources and the organization necessary to deal a significant blow to the enemy; and the ruthlessly dangerous aliens responsible for the destruction of the gates’ builders are ready to do the same to humanity as a whole. And yet, even though the story does not lack for edge-of-your-seat scenes, furious battles and harrowing journeys through weird alien constructs, the overall mood is more sober, more inclined to melancholy – it might have been the projection of my own sadness at the end of the saga, granted, but with hindsight this book is, after all, a long goodbye to a number of characters I have come to know well and love as real people, just as they, in the course of the series, went from total strangers thrown together by circumstances to a tightly knit family.
Even in the midst of a galaxy-wide conflict, it’s the crew of the Rocinante that still earns the spotlight in this final act, and despite all that has happened to them over the years, despite the unavoidable injuries of passing time or life’s emotional wounds, they hold on to each other through learned trust and affection, in a sort of symbiosis which needs no words to make them work as a unit.
Time and use had changed them, but it hadn’t changed what they were. There was joy in that. A promise.
Thinking about the persons they were at the beginning, and seeing how time and experiences changed their outlook, made me aware of the long road they traveled as characters: Naomi kept trying to be as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible, guilt from her past compelling her to keep to the shadows, and yet she ended up being the leader of the resistance against Laconia, putting her mechanical skills at the service of the vast “machine” of the underground; Alex had always skirted his commitments as a husband and a father, preferring the freedom and joy of piloting a ship, but in the end the choice he makes is focused on his son and grandson. And Holden, who had chosen a nondescript work on an ice hauler to be free from responsibilities, little by little found himself at the center of big and momentous events, so that his ultimate decision is a supremely selfless one, which looks even more poignant when considering that his return from imprisonment on Laconia had left him “scarred and broken” in the wake of the physical and emotional torture he had endured, and that he would have deserved some peace after so much suffering.
The only one who remains a constant is Amos: not even the uncanny changes he underwent in the course of the previous book managed to shift him from the steadfast presence I’ve come to appreciate and expect, someone who can come up with startlingly wise advice:
“You’re overthinking this, Cap’n. You got now and you got the second your lights go out. Meantime is the only time there is.”
Amos’ personality is a weird combination of menacing strength, expressed in nonchalant understatement, and of unexpected gentleness, which we see – time and again – in his penchant for picking up strays: from distraught botanist Prax, looking for his missing daughter, to Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, former enemy he added to the Roci’s crew, to Teresa Duarte (plus her dog), who seems to come as close as an adopted daughter for the apparently unemotional mechanic. Maybe it’s not so strange when considering Amos’ past and his (albeit unexpressed) desire to protect the helpless, which makes a great deal of sense when we see Amos as the one to get the very last word in this final book, in his role as protector and guardian.
If the final chapter in The Expanse is not as “epic” as might have been expected, it’s however quite rewarding thanks to the quiet but poignant emotions that stand as its backbone: I’m not ashamed to admit that some of these goodbyes affected me deeply because, despite the 9-books run, I was not ready to part company with this crew, and the only comfort to be had was the hopeful outlook on humanity given by the last paragraphs. Granted, in this series humanity did show some of its worst traits, but also the capacity to move beyond them, or at least of being willing to try: the hint that the story does go on behind the closing curtain is indeed a glimmer of hope, and I will stick to that while I wait for these two amazing authors to create something new and equally compelling in the future.