The Way the Wheel Turns: Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey

Over the six novels of The Expanse saga so far, Captain James Holden and his incredible crew have been through the wringer repeatedly. They’ve weathered wars and tangled with extraterrestrial tech; they’ve been hunted and they’ve been haunted; they’ve played their parts in power struggles aplenty and dealt with disaster after disaster, not least an uprising, a rebellion and, of late, an apocalypse of sorts.

The times, to be sure, have been tumultuous. And inasmuch as they’ve affected the series’ setting—what started in the Sol system is now an interstellar affair thanks to the arrival of the ring gates—they’ve also had a dramatic impact on the ongoing narrative’s characters. Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex—along with relatively recent recruits like Bobbie and Clarissa—are not the idealistic whippersnappers we met in Leviathan Wakes. In the canny hands of Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, collaborating here as James S. A. Corey, they’ve grown, be it for better or for worse, both as individuals and as a team. They’ve grown… and guys? They’ve gotten old.

Thirty-odd years have passed since the fall of the Free Navy under Marcos Inaros in Babylon’s Ashes. Some things have changed in the intervening period, and some things, happily, haven’t.

“The Earth-Mars Coalition had been the center of humanity once—the innermost of the inners. Now it was an important spoke on the wheel whose hub was Medina Station. Where the weird alien sphere sat in the middle of the not-space that linked all the ring gates,” and where the Transport Union, under the leadership of President Drummer, is based.

Holden and his have been doing odd jobs for Drummer for decades, but at the start of Persepolis Rising, they’re charged with a rather ghastly task. Some of the people of Freehold, a small colony with no love for government, have been caught cutting the line that the Transport Union triage. They may well have been in dire need of supplies, but there are checks and balances on the use of the ring gates for good reason, and Drummer feels she has to set an example before such dangerous behaviour becomes commonplace. So it is that she dispatches the Rocinante to Freehold to deliver a message that is essentially a death sentence.

It’s a dirty deed indeed, and however much Holden recognises its necessity, he doesn’t want to do it, damn it. To wit, he breaks the rules a bit, gets told off for being such a presumptuous shit, and, in the end, decides to quit. On the flight back to Medina Station, he and his XO Naomi hand over command of the hunk of metal and memories that has been their home since time immemorial to Bobbie, who’ll be the boat’s new boss. They, for their part, hope to retire somewhere with an atmosphere and live out the rest of their lives quietly.

However unlikely the chances of that actually happening are, it does seem like it might be the right time to leave the limelight. Life in the galaxy hasn’t all been roses and posies since the events of Babylon’s Ashes, but broadly speaking, Holden and Naomi have every reason to believe that the peace they’ve been pushing will persist:

Belters had tried to kill the Earth, but here it was still spinning. They’d tried to burn the inner planets’ ships, and here was the EMC navy, scraped back together and flying.

And on the other hand, Earth had tried to choke the Belters under its boot for generations, and here was Drummer. Time had made them allies in the great expansion of civilisation out to the stars.

At least until something else changed.

Inevitably enough, the thirty years of tranquillity preceding Persepolis Rising have been the calm before a storm many decades in the making. And that storm—that something else on the tip of Drummer’s tongue—has a name: Winston Duarte.

Though Holden and his had more pressing matters to attend to at the time, longtime readers of Corey’s awesome space opera will probably recall Duarte hightailing it through a ring gate towards the end of Nemesis Games. He didn’t go it alone, of course: several hundred ships full of followers, including some of the best and the brightest minds in the Milky Way, went with him, and with them went the stolen protomolecule sample that may be the key to understanding the extinct alien race that created the gates in the first place.

Duarte has been a busy baddie since. On Laconia, he’s engineered an empire, and that empire—bolstered by technology centuries ahead of anything any of the other major players in this milieu has—is about to come knocking. And when it does, don’t kid yourself into thinking that its fearless leader will make the same mistakes his fallen Free Navy frenemy did. A particularly potty-mouthed centenarian, returning to a round of applause from this critic, advises Drummer as much:

“Don’t talk yourself into underestimating him because you want him the be the next Marco Inaros. Duarte won’t hand you a win by being a dumbfuck. He won’t spread himself too thin. He won’t overreach. He won’t make up half a dozen plans and then spin a bottle to pick one. He’s a chess player. And if you act on instinct, do the thing your feelings demand, he’ll beat us all.”

Persepolis Rising is a slow starter by The Expanse’s standards, but what its first half lacks in action and in-fighting factions its startling second section shoulders skilfully. Several set pieces that are simply staggering in their scale serve to underscore the severity of the threat Duarte represents—specifically a stand-off between his small army and the rest of humanity that certainly doesn’t conclude the way you expect it to.

As massive and as meaningful as such space battles are, Corey doesn’t forsake the folks we’ve come to care about over the course of this superlative series either. In fact, they’re his foremost focus in Persepolis Rising‘s otherwise protracted prologue. Holden’s decision to hang up his captain’s hat proves a powerful paradigm shift here at the outset of the third of The Expanse’s triumvirate of trilogies. This is, in no uncertain terms, “the first act of the end of the world,” and the saviour of civilisation on so many occasions that it’s honestly gotten a little silly can only sit back and watch it happen. You can guess how infuriated that makes our hero feel, yes, but you can’t begin to imagine where his frustration will take him.

Holden is far from the only character to come out of Persepolis Rising changed. Alex is left out in the cold, if the truth be told, but Amos, Clarissa, Naomi and Bobbie’s arcs are all advanced by a narrative that takes no prisoners as it approaches its devastating destination. And I do mean devastating. Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham have developed such a distinctive voice over the years that it was only when the bodies started stacking up that I was reminded of ties they have to George R. R. Martin. I’ll only say that they’re painfully clear here.

Though the seventh part of The Expanse opens on an unusually hopeful note, with humanity writ large finally united and our ever-hopeful heroes planning happy retirements, Persepolis Rising is ultimately among the darkest chapters of this insatiable saga. It takes a little longer than I’d like to get going, but when it does, Persepolis Rising proves as pulse-pounding and poignant as any of its powerful predecessors, and given how near the end is from here, I don’t expect there to be another dull moment before the whole story’s over.

Persepolis Rising is available from Orbit.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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