The Expanse (Books 1-4)

Leviathan Wakes

The human race expands out into the stars and splits into three major factions: Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets. With different politics, societies and worldviews, the various factions don’t always get along. When the freighter The Canterbury is shot by a stealth ship of mysterious origins, the Outer Planets see it as an attack by Earth/Mars, and the beginnings of war commence. 

The four survivors of The Canterbury are lead by Jim Holden on a fact-finding mission about the nature of the mysterious ship. Meanwhile, Detective Miller on the asteroid base Ceres Station begins investigating the disappearance of rich socialite turned freedom fighter Julie Mao whose father is one of the most powerful men in the galaxy. 

Structured as a detective story, Leviathan Wakes keeps the intrigue and clues popping along at a steady pace. Following the perspective of two vastly different characters who essentially want the same thing is the strength of this book. Holden is an idealist who believes that full disclosure is always the best policy while Miller believes in a far more cruel and cynical world. The book stands strongly on the foundation of their point of views and the well-established world that feels fully-realized at every level even down to random scientific minutia. It’s a promising start to the series.

Caliban’s War

One of the great strengths of the first book is how the scope of the story evolved over time. This book takes that scale and runs with it, doubling the point of views with four perspectives. The story follows James Holden returning as the captain of the freelance ship Rocinante, plant biologist Prax who works on Ganymede station, Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine stationed on Ganymede and Chrisjen Avasarala, one of the most powerful UN officials living on Earth.

The Expanse continues to impress with the distinctive sound of each voice. Inhabiting the lives and minds of each character across lines and allegiances give this holistic perspective on events where it’s hard to pick sides and allegiances. Each character is flawed and weak in their own way and yet somehow compliments other characters in compelling ways. Bobbie and Chrisjen and probably the best contrast as Bobbie is used to solving things through military power while Chrisjen is the master of political games. Both want the same thing, but use different methods to get to it. 

While it might not be fair to declare this as the measuring stick for the series only two books into the series, I will go as far as to say it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction I’ve read in a long time. The balance of the character perspectives, the growing political intrigue and that commitment to world-building makes for a fantastic followup to the original book and a fine work of science fiction.

Abaddon’s Gate

After the sprawling adventure of the last book, it would probably be tempting to try to go even bigger and broader. Instead, the story is scaled back and slowed down…literally. An alien gateway (yea, there’s ancient technology left over from aliens in this series) to an odd pocket realm opens and Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets scramble to control it. Of course, it’s Holden and the crew of the Rocinante who are the first to broadcast images from inside the weird pocket dimension. But when violence begins inside this weird bit of space, the rules of physics seem to be taken over by some alien technology that slows down the speed limit of everything inside to a crawl. 

Part of what makes this book work so well is it takes all the political intrigue of the series and then places it under the stress of having all the factions stuck in a situation where surviving becomes top priority. Will people be able to put aside differences and get along or will humanity continue to hold knives at each other’s throats? It’s two of the new characters, Bull and Anna, who help explore this idea. 

Anna is compelling as a Methodist pastor who is sent on the mission as a civilian observer in order to examine the spiritual implications of signs of alien life in the universe. She tries to minister to people in crisis in the face of slow death in space. Meanwhile, Bull tries to keep order on the Outer Planet ship Behemoth as a security officer, but quickly has his job undermined for being from Earth. 

Rounding out the four perspectives are once again Holden and a third new character, Clarissa, who I won’t say much about as who she is and why she’s in the series will spoil the first two books. She has her moments as a character, but in the grand scope of things feels like one of the weaker characters in the series. Her stakes in the world are much more personal and petty and don’t fall in line with the broader contexts of the world that make each character feel like a compelling outlook on the universe. She does come across as more interesting than Bull who lacks any impact as a character with personality. 

The book does end by pulling out the rug from the reader with an ending that honestly could have capped off these three books as a trilogy, but, like the name of the series suggests, The Expanse is always interested in expanding. 

Cibola Burn

It’s going to get harder from here on out to write about these books without flat out spoiling the previous titles. Readers continue at their own risk. This book plays out in rather small scale compared to the first two books, the entire events taking place on one planet. It’s essentially a space Western that looks at what happens when humanity tries to expand. 

There are lots of direct references to the American West, which makes sense with Holden being born in Montana. The book tackles issues of governance, colonialism, scientific integrity, and more as it looks at what it means for humans to explore the final frontier. But where the ideas shine here, it feels like the character take a step back. 

Holden is interesting enough as a lead for the series, but the rest of the characters here just aren’t as memorable or distinct as in previous books. They’re not bad, but it feels like a volume where we follow what would be the supporting characters in another book. It makes you realize why such characters are generally kept as supporting characters in most stories. 

As the books continue to expand and introduce new characters, it drifts a bit farther away from the initial cast of characters that kept things interesting. The story still follows the crew of the Rocinante, but as the books expand into more and more perspectives, there can sometimes be a lack of voice and vision. Cibola Burn is a bit of a course correction, but it’s still not as compelling as the first two books in the series.

© James Blake Ewing 2020