In Caliban’s War, the planet Ganymede is frequently referred to as the “breadbasket” of the galaxy. For generations, it has provided a crucial foothold for humanity’s expansion into the stars. It’s like an oasis in the desert: no one owns it exactly, but everybody needs it equally. Its practical value, then, is unparalleled, and its political capital is accordingly incalculable, so when things on Ganymede go suddenly sideways because of a firefight between opposing forces and a single apparently alien interloper, all of the major powers from across the vastness of the Expanse take a stance.
Some see a grave threat. Others, an opportunity for untold profit. However, with all-out hostilities in the offing, one potty-mouthed politician finds herself fighting for peace. “Caught up in this smaller, human struggle of war and influence and the tribal division between Earth and Mars,” not to mention the noncommittal Alliance of Outer Planets, Chrisjen Avasarala — assistant to the UN’s undersecretary of executive administration — is one of three new narrators introduced in Caliban’s War, and she will have a pivotal part to play in the coming months.
In the interim, brilliantly, she’s going to swear like a sailor.
Meanwhile, on Ganymede itself, we meet a disparate pair of POV characters. Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper — Bobbie to her friends and fellow Martian Marines — is the sole survivor of the gruesome ground war that sparked the space battles which rage in the fire-speckled skies. Haunted by the things she saw, she’s shipped off to Earth to tell her incredible tale, where she finds an unlikely ally in Avasarala.
And then there’s Prax, an unassuming scientist whose immuno-compromised daughter is kidnapped during the planet-wide panic that follows the first shots. Our estranged single father is heartbroken, but pragmatic: Prax understands that “he and Mei were a pebble in space. They didn’t signify.”
To one man, though, they matter — perhaps more than anything else. That would be the captain of the Rocinante, James Holden, and for spoileriffic reasons I’d really rather not get into, his is the only returning perspective from the inaugural act of The Expanse. The other half of that equation, Detective Miller, is much missed over the course of Caliban’s War, and though his presence is certainly felt, his actual, factual absence from the narrative gives this second salvo a fairly different flavour from the first.
Caliban’s War picks up roughly a year after the shocking climax of Leviathan Wakes, with humanity reeling from the revelation that we are not, after all, alone. Somewhere out there an alien intelligence exists, and our species’ situation has slipped from bad to worse, because it doesn’t mean to make nice with its new neighbours.
Ever since the events on Venus, Holden and his crew — namely Naomi, Alex and Amos — have been running odd jobs for the OPA, and the dirty work they’ve been doing has taken a toll on all involved, though the captain most notably. “He’d turned into the man [Naomi] feared he was becoming. Just another Detective Miller, dispensing frontier justice from the barrel of his gun.”
In as much as this frequent fear cheapens the legacy of a fantastic character, it also serves to add a compelling dimension to Holden’s formerly one-note nature, and the other crew members of the Rocinante are decently developed as well. The child abuse involved in Prax’s narrative strikes a surprising chord with Amos; Alex kinda falls for Bobbie; and Naomi is no longer so sure about her feelings for Holden.
The real meat of this superb sequel lies elsewhere, however. With Avasarala — who shines an unflattering light on the politics of tomorrow — and Prax in particular, who offers insight into the family of the future and a layman’s slant on the sprawling galaxy of The Expanse. I’m afraid that Bobbie, beyond her involvement in the battle which kicks off Caliban’s War, seems something of a spare part, but Prax and Avasarala give this sf series a new lease on life, demonstrating the setting’s inestimable potential at the same time as realising a few of its most fascinating aspects.
Caliban’s War can also lay claim to a powerful sense of momentum thanks to its co-authors’ impressive storytelling diversity. When the book’s four perspectives resolve into two greater tales, and then these two become one, the impulse to pump your fists in pleasure is almost irresistible. The pace is breakneck from the start, and though Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck run into a touch of trouble trying to sustain said for all 600 pages of this unstoppable object, by and large it gets exponentially faster. Markedly harder. I’d go so far as to say better — and Caliban’s War is pretty brilliant to begin with.
Which is not to say our allied authors don’t miss the mark occasionally. There’s Bobbie, obviously. But you should also be aware that there’s some rather tiresome dialogue in the cards, as well as an overabundance of laughably transparent politics, and a couple of at best cartoonishly characterised bad guys. Last but not least, Caliban’s War attempts to reproduce one of Leviathan Wakes’ most memorable moments, but the hellish descent our refreshed cast of characters must make is substantially less impactful that it once was.
In a sense, then, Caliban’s War is more of the same, but the same good thing, it bears saying. And thanks in no small part to the perspectives of Prax and Avasarala, and the new angles on this universe they offer, it’s different enough from its predecessor to stand apart, if not alone — some knowledge of book one is practically a prerequisite. That said, last year’s Leviathan Wakes got this action-packed series off to a stellar start, so if you haven’t read it already... well.
Profoundly affecting and intellectually stimulating space opera The Expanse is not, but space rock, as exemplified by Caliban’s War, is at least as awesome. Bring on the encore performance!
Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Science Fiction Foundation. His blog is The Speculative Scotsman, and sometimes he tweets about books, too.