(2019) James S. A. Corey, Orbit, £20, hrdbk, 534pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51035-4
This is the eighth book (of nine) in the galaxy-spanning 'Expanse' series, by writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and, like the others, it contains a heady mix of action and characterisation focusing on the now familiar team of James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal, Amos Burton and Bobbie Draper as they try to keep everything from falling apart.
The basic series premise is that in the near-ish future (we are fifty years in to mining the asteroids), Bad People discover an alien ‘protomolecule’ which kills some people in messy ways and transforms others into something scary. But the protomolecule is just working things out and eventually mutates into a Stargate-style wormhole ‘ring’ somewhere near Neptune’s orbit which links to thirteen hundred other star systems via a ‘slow zone’ of weird space with an alien controlling mechanism at the centre.
Still with me? Sol system is split into three broad factions, all vying for position: Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt (the Belters). This tension drives much of the series, which moves from system-based territory spats to interstellar territory spats when people start using the gates. Time passes. Alex and Naomi get grey hair. Then breakaway military Martians invade from one of the new systems, Laconia, led by Winston Duarte, the High Consul of the Laconian Empire. They’re fuelled by protomolecule tech, and the rest of humanity is no match for them.
But there’s a snag. The protomolecule was a tool of the long-gone builders of the gates who closed the whole system down to avoid an overwhelming threat – a strategy that ended in failure for them. In flexing their protomolecule-enhanced muscles at Earth forces, the Laconians draw the attention of these unknown enemies and trigger a (Sol) system–wide memory blackout.
That is where the new novel starts. Duarte’s strategy is to poke the new enemies with nuclear weapons to stop them making some ships disappear when they move through the gate system. Holden is Duarte’s prisoner, and in various ways Naomi and the others are fighting against Duarte’s regime. So there are external tensions (how will the dangerous aliens react?) and internal struggles (can Duarte be overthrown? Is there an even bigger threat amongst the Laconians?) and all plays out in high octane style.
The core cast has remained intact since Book One, but Daniel Abraham is one of George R. R. Martin’s cohorts, so there can be no guarantees that that will last. In any case, there have been changes along the way – Clarissa Mao was developed as a major supporting character in recent novels but didn’t make it to Book Eight, for instance – and the cast is generally a long way from home and a long way from each other. In those circumstances, change is almost inevitable. This novel introduces another key character too – Duarte’s teenage daughter Theresa – and she fits in well to the overall narrative, adding an interesting change in perspective.
All in all this novel is a success, and doesn’t show the fatigue you might expect of a series this length. This is partly due to a well plotted story arc that moves in new directions and avoids retreading old ground (too much). But it’s also down to the strength of the cast – these are characters it’s very hard to get tired of.
You can pick this series up here, though some of the references will pass you by, but why would you? Start with the first, Leviathan Wakes, and speed through them, or cheat by watching the excellent Amazon Prime TV series (which takes you to the end of Book Three (Abaddon’s Gate) and, shortly, Book Four Cibola Burn). And then wait, like me, in anticipation for next year’s Book Nine.
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