Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey

Werthead

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The Expanse #6: Babylon's Ashes

The Solar system has been plunged into chaos. A third of the Martian fleet has defected to a new cause, an OPA breakaway faction has committed the greatest terrorist attack in human history and the new colony worlds beyond the gateways are engulfed in strife. It once again falls on the shoulders of Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to help end the crisis.

Babylon's Ashes is the sixth novel (of nine) in The Expanse series, but is really the second half of the preceding novel, Nemesis Games, which took the Expanse universe we'd all grown to know and tossed it through a blender. Ashes picks up the wreckage from that book and tries to restore some sense of normalcy to the setting.

The book is huge in scope. In fact, it's the broadest in scale of the series to date, with numerous POV characters in multiple factions, including picking up on various one-off POVs who appeared in earlier novels. Seeing characters like Prax and Anna show up again several volumes after their own storylines apparently ended and lend a hand (or take a view) on what's going on is quite good fun.

However, since Babylon's Ashes is pretty much exactly the same length as the other books in the series, this enlarged scope does mean we get a lot less time with other characters. In fact, the book's pace feels a bit accelerated, as we pin-pong back and forth between a large cast. Having more characters in a standard-sized book means that we spend less time with each character, and the resulting story arcs are much choppier.

It also doesn't help that there is a repetition of structure and plot here. We've seen Jim Holden and the team getting into hijinks with the Nauvoo aka Behemoth aka Medina Station and the "slow zone" previously whilst various other factions shoot at one another and here we are, doing it again.

The Expanse is, at its best, a thrillingly executed political thriller in space, with normally enjoyable adventure elements added. At its worst, the series' workmanlike prose and tight focus can leave it feeling repetitive and a bit MOR as these kind of space operas go. Nemesis Games was probably the best book in the series because it gave readers a "Red Wedding" level of shock, something which overthrew the apple carts and put our heroes on the back foot with a genuinely thrilling sense that anything could happen. Babylon's Ashes wastes that promise by lowballing the damage done from the disaster in the previous novel (the characters are now completely removed from the carnage so it's only related through statistics and people looking glumly at reports on screens), eliminating the over-arcing threat easily with a convenient mcguffin and then establishing a new status quo with almost indecent haste.

That's not to say that Babylon's Ashes is a bad book. Even at its weakest, The Expanse is competent. But there is the prevailing feeling here that the books feel like a first draft with the (decidedly superior) TV adaptation coming in afterwards and rearranging the character and plot elements into something considerably more compelling.

Babylon's Ashes (***) is readable and interesting, but after Nemesis Games it feels decidedly underwhelming, occasionally bordering on the lacklustre. It is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Rodders

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I have to say that I thought the ending on this one was a massive cop out.
 

Ashley R

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Well, a lot of views here that couldn't be further from mine if I tried.

I saw the first few episodes on the show first. The story didn't really grab me until the Donnager turned up, and then it was like the story turned on the afterburners and took off like a rocket. Because we got to it late, the second season was available to watch, and at that point I was caught, hook, line, and sinker.

It left me wanting to know more so I bought the novels, and devoured them. Probably the best TV SF series, the cast are excellent with lots of strong female characters to like too. And unlike GoT, a series that we mostly enjoyed and I actually read more than the first novel. So for me, this was a good series, and I know a lot of people here don't like the American perspective, but for me it works.

SF started as an American led genre, and The Expanse is true to its roots.
 

Werthead

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The Expanse #7: Persepolis Rising

Over the last thirty years, Earth, Mars and the Belt have unified to explore and settle the thirteen hundred colony worlds beyond the ring gates. The divisions and damage of previous generations are slowly being forgotten...until the colony world of Laconia launches a coup using protomolecule-based technology. As a new empire rises, the crew of the ageing frigate Rocinante once again find themselves on the front lines.

Persepolis Rising, the seventh book in The Expanse, opens with a bit of a non-sequitur time jump as we leap thirty years after the events of Babylon's Ashes. This is an interesting narrative decision, although one that is decidedly undersold: everyone is pretty much exactly where we left them in the previous volume and doing much the same thing, which not so much stretches credulity as shatters it into ten thousand tiny pieces. Time jumps are tricky to get right and can often feel contrived, and the time jump in this book feels rather like the latter.

Once the initial discomfort of that passes, Persepolis Rising ups its game considerably by introducing the Laconian forces as a powerful new player on the scene. There was enough foreshadowing in the previous two books to allow Laconia's rise to feel reasonably organic and the authors do a good job of fleshing out the empire and its hierarchy by using Laconian military officer Santiago Singh as a POV character. There's also some good characterisation as Singh makes choices that seem reasonably logical in isolation but rapidly escalate towards disaster.

Elsewhere, the Rocinante crew get stuck in a very tricky situation and have to escape. This is a fairly good story, but it feels like it should have been a much briefer episode in a larger story. Instead, huge events are happening but then we cut back to our regular heroes plotting to escape...and then plotting some more...and then at the end of the novel they (spoilers!) escape. The main storyline here is treading a bit too much water.

Still, there's some very good characterisation and the authors pull off a major shift in the underlying paradigm of the series relatively successfully. Persepolis Rising (****) is available now in the UK and USA.
SF started as an American led genre, and The Expanse is true to its roots.
Writers from the United States have played a key role in the later development of science fiction, but the earliest works in the genre (such as The Blazing World by Mary Cavendish) predate the formation of the USA by a century or more. Arguably the most important early work in the establishment of the genre was British, Frankenstein, and many of the key later SF writers were British, Russian, Polish and other nationalities. Science fiction in the latter 20th Century was an American-dominated genre in the English language by volume, but creatively led? No, or no moreso than other nationalities.
 

Ashley R

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Writers from the United States have played a key role in the later development of science fiction, but the earliest works in the genre (such as The Blazing World by Mary Cavendish) predate the formation of the USA by a century or more.

Arguably the most important early work in the establishment of the genre was British, Frankenstein, and many of the key later SF writers were British, Russian, Polish and other nationalities. Science fiction in the latter 20th Century was an American-dominated genre in the English language by volume, but creatively led? No, or no moreso than other nationalities.
Science fiction, or scientifiction was a neologism created by Hugo Gernsback. who said, "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision..."

So arguably he created the genre classification. The fact that critics have retrospectively broadened the definition to include writers who wouldn't have thought of themselves as writing 'scientifiction,' is I believe driven by wanting to give the genre the veneer of respectability against the criticism that SF is not literature.

Frankenstein is arguably Gothic Romance, and other writers have argued they are creating speculative fiction as a way to distance themselves from the putrid pulp of tentacled aliens.

As for the quibble over led versus dominated. Where a market is dominated by a volume of creations from one culture, it is arguably creating more and therefore American authors, or writers working in the American style, lead the creation of tropes that make up SF.

Arguably...

I'm proud to be a writer of SF and don't require validation of the literary critics to tell me what I do is worthwhile. YMMV.
 

Werthead

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Science fiction is not an exclusively American genre and the attempt to claim it as one is the worst kind of kneejerk nationalist nonsense.

The Expanse #8: Tiamat's Wrath

The Laconian Empire has conquered the Solar system and most of the colony worlds established through the ring space. A resistance movement led by the crewmembers of the Rocinante is hoping to win back the freedom of the individual worlds, but High Consul Winston Duarte has taken James Holden captive. As tensions rise, Duarte makes the bold decision to declare war on the unknown, possibly unknowable aliens that killed the creators of the protomolecule, a war that will have unforeseen consequences.

Tiamat's Wrath is the eighth and penultimate novel in The Expanse, moving the series decisively towards its endgame with the conflict against the unknown aliens beginning in force. This is the moment that The Expanse has been building towards for a decade, with the true conflict finally getting underway.

It's a shame, then, that it feels anti-climactic. Part of the problem in this latter part of the series is that it feels like it is trying to do too much in too little space: the conquest of the Solar system by the Laconians happened very rapidly (and mostly off-screen) in the previous book and in this book the resistance movement forms and takes action with almost indecent haste. Persepolis Rising did at least benefit from the tight focus on the Rocinante crew trying to escape Medina Station and using that as a lens through which other events unfolded. Tiamat's Wrath is a much more epic, widescreen book which tries to tell the story across a number of fast-moving fronts, but in almost exactly the same page count. This results in a much faster-paced story where events happen quickly and sometimes without enough setup.

We've been here before, and in fact Tiamat's Wrath forms the second half of a duology that began with Persepolis Rising, and in doing so comes across as a near beat-for-beat retread of the previous duology (Nemesis Games and Babylon's Ashes): in the first book a huge, epic, game-changing event takes place with apparently massive ramifications for the series, and in the second it is wrapped up with almost indecent haste, both times relying on an important female character in the enemy camp deciding to swap sides. The structural similarities between the two duologies can leave the reader with a nagging sense of deja vu. The pieces are different but the game is being played the same way.

There is also the problem that we still know very little about the extradimensional alien threat. We know they're bad news, but their motivations, capabilities and real level of threat remain unclear after eight books out of nine in the series. It does feel a little like the situation with the Others in A Song of Ice and Fire, where we're supposed to be wary of this species but we don't really know what they want so it means their level of threat remains vague. The stakes, rather than being made clear or raised, are instead simply left undefined.

As usual, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who together make up the gestalt entity known as James S.A. Corey) deliver a fast-paced, moderately well-written space opera yarn with some exciting battles, interesting plot twists and some decent characterisation, but also one that feels like it is repeating earlier beats from the series and still leaving a lot of information undisclosed before heading into the final volume of the series. Tiamat's Wrath (***) is solid but occasionally feels like a detailed plot summary of a novel rather than a novel in its own right. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Ashley R

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Science fiction is not an exclusively American genre and the attempt to claim it as one is the worst kind of kneejerk nationalist nonsense.
I'm not sure if you are aiming your at comment at me? If you are may I suggest you take account of what I actually said:

"As for the quibble over led versus dominated. Where a market is dominated by a volume of creations from one culture, it is arguably creating more and therefore American authors, or writers working in the American style, lead the creation of tropes that make up SF.

Arguably...

I'm proud to be a writer of SF and don't require validation of the literary critics to tell me what I do is worthwhile. YMMV."

I've highlighted the word arguably, and secondly I'm not American, though arguably I write in the American tradition of SF, as did Arthur C. Clarke.
 

soulsinging

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What holocaust? I'm not talking about one nation going to war and committing atrocities, or one group of people committing atrocities on another. In the book, a single executive decides to test an alien virus on one and a half million people - and no one tells him this is a remarkably stupid idea? Imagine of the director of R&D for ICL decided to test a new poison by introducing it in to the water spuply of Birmingham?
Having worked for multiple large corporations I find this very easy to believe. Nobody tells executive leadership an idea is bad, unless you want to lose your job. Whistleblowers get fired. See Wells Fargo.

Everything else about the review is pretty much why I gave up on this one.
 

soulsinging

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Hitler - and it was not him alone - created a political environment in which certain actions not only became acceptable but desirable. Being at war certainly helped. A corporate director who will perform a fatal experiment on an unknowing public is another matter altogether. Given present legislation, safeguards, and public values, the president of Glaxo SmithKline would never consider secretly adding some drug to the water supply of New York City which would likely kill everyone. A terrorist, perhaps. But an executive? For profit?

If they thought they could get away with it, absolutely. There was much hand wringing here in the US about adding a provision to our Coronavirus relief bill that would limit the cost of any vaccine developed with public funds because executives claimed they couldn’t justify the research if they weren’t able to guarantee windfall profits for themselves on the back end. I left my previous company when an executive ordered us all to start telling prospective employees that a temp job was permanent because we couldn’t find people willing to take a job that lasted less than a week. Who cares about the financial stability of those people's families as long as our buyer is happy?

Just seems odd to critique the book for clinging too close to outdated gender/racial norms but then also criticize it for not showing proper deference to the moral superiority of western capitalism. We justified enslaving millions of people for hundreds of years in the name of profitability...
 
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Brian G Turner

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I've mostly enjoyed The Expanse TV series, but I couldn't shake the feeling that they were making it up as they went along and creating conflict for it's own sake.

I mean, the protomolecule - what does it do? It tries to take over existing life and destroy it. No, it creates a Lovecraftian monster. Wait, no, it creates mutant super-soldiers. Nope, it takes things apart to try to understand things. Oh, wait - now it's turned into a ring filled with wormholes!
 

elvet

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I've mostly enjoyed The Expanse TV series, but I couldn't shake the feeling that they were making it up as they went along and creating conflict for it's own sake.

I mean, the protomolecule - what does it do? It tries to take over existing life and destroy it. No, it creates a Lovecraftian monster. Wait, no, it creates mutant super-soldiers. Nope, it takes things apart to try to understand things. Oh, wait - now it's turned into a ring filled with wormholes!
(I have only read up to Babylon's Ashes) My take on the protomolecule is that evolves and learns from its host. It also needs energy to become more complex. Initially, it fed off of humans, and took their form. Then it fed off of ships, and eventually a planet. Constantly learning and building to become these portals. So, in that context, all those changes made sense to me. The question remains, who put all this potential into this molecule, and for what reason?
 
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