Caliban’s War by James S A Corey
I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes and was happy to get back into The Expanse with Caliban’s War. It isn’t quite as good as the previous book, but where it lacks the same impact and breathless pace it makes up for in excellent characterisation.
Caliban’s War ups the protagonist count from two to four. On the Jovian moon Ganymede, a terrifying creature decimates a squad of soldiers, triggering violence between the Martian and Earth forces stationed there which brings the station to the brink of destruction. Bobbie is a Martian and the sole survivor of her squad; she is brought to Earth to testify over what happened and try to stop all-out war between the main military powers of the solar system. There she meets our second protagonist, Chrisjen Avasrahla, a high ranking politician who, despite her brash and aggressive attitude, genuinely works towards peace in the face of military hawks. On Ganymede is Prax, a botanist whose daughter was kidnapped in the chaos following the attack. It isn’t long before he enlists the help of our returning protagonist from Leviathan Wakes, Jim Holden, captain of the Rocinante, working for the OPA. In the background of it all, the protomolecule is adjusting to its new home on Venus, with the whole system watching in fear.
When the previous book ended with a massive asteroid filled with zombies carrying an alien virus crashing into Venus, it would be difficult to top this in the sequel. The stakes never feel quite as high in Caliban’s War, although more successful are the personal stakes for Prax in finding his daughter. The tying in of Earth politics isn’t hugely successful; the manipulations and games lack the intrigue and larger than life characters (Avasrahla excepted) that these storylines need to be interesting. This is why George R. R. Martin does it so well; over the top characters like Littlefinger and Varys give these scenes the hook they need to compete with the action and Caliban’s War doesn’t quite pull this off. That said, the action scenes are very good. The dialogue is a strength, particularly the easy and relaxed bond between the crew of the Rocinante. The banter between them never feels forced and they come across as people who genuinely love each other without grand emotional statements.
The characters are definitely the best part, with Avasrahla being my clear favourite. I loved the image of an elderly Indian woman stalking around the UN hurling abuse at underlings. In fact, the authors show a remarkable ability to avoid stereotypes. As ugly as the world of The Expanse is, the people there genuinely don’t care about skin colour or religion. They only care if you’re a Belter or not. Bobbie is a great character, a bit like Brienne of Tarth but without the shame and insecurity. Prax is a very different character to the hardened and competent figures we see, but his desperate search for his daughter is really quite moving. Leviathan Wakes had an issue where it’s two protagonists, Holden and Miller, were a bit too similar. That is not an issue with Caliban’s War and this forms the novel’s greatest strength.
Caliban’s War is a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to continuing with the series. It may not quite be as good as Leviathan Wakes, but that’s a high bar to hit. It ends in a fascinating place, with The Expanse becoming a stranger and more interesting setting.