Caliban’s War, the second of the planned six-volume The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, is fast-paced, high-caliber science fiction. With higher stakes, political intrigue spanning the Solar System, exciting ship-to-ship space battles, and a powerful monster of unknown origin, Caliban’s War is a sequel worthy of its outstanding predecessor, Leviathan Wakes.
The two-man writing team who make up the literary persona of James S. A. Corey maintained the successful narrative structure they established in book one with brief chapters of approximately ten pages each presented from the perspective of a series of alternating characters. The brevity of the chapters and the rotating perspectives give the novel a sensation of rapid and perpetual forward motion. It is a somewhat long novel at just five pages shy of six hundred, but I read it in two weeks, which is rather quick for a reader like me who tends to plod through books. This is one was hard to put down and succeeded in transporting me into its world so successfully that a couple of times a voice or a ringing phone would shake me from my reverie and leave me feeling disoriented for a few moments. That is the very definition of engrossing.
The cast list has increased since the first novel. Leviathan Wakes was centered on two main characters, Captain Holden and Detective Miller, with each chapter alternating between them, making the story a bit of a tennis match. Caliban’s War doubles the quantity of point-of-view characters which causes the alternating chapters to feel more like an impressive juggling act. I have read several books recently that use this narrative structure and I find it keeps the story moving. So many of the books I have read in the past have been told from a single character’s perspective so the recent string of multi-perspective stories I have experienced feels like the new hotness, though I know the method is as old as storytelling itself.
The Han Solo-esque Captain Holden returns to command the Rocinante and her crew. New to the series is Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine who exemplifies honor and courage, even as she wages an internal war with herself about where her loyalties should lie as a steady stream of new information pulls her in multiple directions. I loved this new character and the way Corey handled her. It would have been so easy to make the badass marine the stereotypical masculine woman, but Corey ditches that nonsense and grants her moments of strength and vulnerability. She is reminiscent of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, only bigger and tougher. Praxidike Meng is an agricultural scientist searching for his daughter amid the chaos of a sudden shooting war that destroys his peaceful life. He is the everyman of the story, reacting with fear, confusion, impulse, and instinct. Chrisjen Avasarala is a high-powered politician who can move entire fleets with one call. As the situation seems to spiral out of control for Holden, Bobbie, and Prax, it is Avasarala’s job, from her opulent office on Earth, to right the ship, correct the course, and hopefully save millions of lives in the process. On the downward side of middle age, she is feisty, foul-mouthed, abrasive, and reminded me so much of a person with whom I used to work that I found myself laughing in recognition of her character. The disclaimer at the front of the novel, as in every novel, says similarities to real people are coincidental but boy-howdy, Corey grabbed this woman from my real life and stuffed her into their book. All of these people, including the supporting characters, are so well-written that I probably could have figured out who was speaking even without dialogue attribution.
Science fiction authors handle space travel in a variety of ways. You have the lightspeed/warpdrive travel of pulp science fiction where passengers are free to wander about the ship normally due to gravity-controlled environments. There are the hard SF novels that go into exhaustive depth on the science of what actual interplanetary –or farther—space travel would do to a human being’s physical and mental acuity. James S. A. Corey seems to take a slightly ‘middle of the road veering slightly more toward pulp because it is more fun’ approach. Space travel is hard on the body with the G-forces of exceptionally fast travel causing limbs to occasionally pop out of joint, blackouts and nausea. Crew and passengers must be strapped into crash couches to prevent them from violently bouncing around the interior of the ship and they certainly cannot pop down to the restaurant deck to have Whoopi Goldberg mix them up a cocktail. I enjoy Corey’s take on it. There is enough science in there to make it plausible, but they still allow themselves to tell a fun story.
Speaking of story, this one is pure fun. There are so many rugs pulled out from under so many feet, conflicts upon conflicts, it constantly feels like everything is falling apart. Watching these characters navigate the challenges into which Corey plunges them made me feel as I felt when I was a wide-eyed young boy watching Star Wars, holding my breath, gripping the edge of my chair, and uttering lightsaber hums.
If you are a fan of action-oriented science fiction, this series is for you. If you have not read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, definitely start there. And get comfortable because hours may pass without you realizing it.