Chrisjen Avasarala is my Spirit Animal

It is hard to believe, but there have been 4 books in the ‘Expanse’ series written by James S.A. Corey. James is actually a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. They take turns writing and editing alternating chapters in these books. The first novel, ‘Leviathan’s Wake’ was nominated for awards, and made a fairly big splash when it came out. Many people that read the first book might be unaware of the sequels, or have not kept up with that’s happened in the latest books.

The “world” of the books is referred to as ‘The Expanse’, the human race has expanded out from Earth and colonized Mars with domes, filled large asteroids, and moons, with underground cities, and started mining distant asteroids and comets for resources. Humans have been born in space, elongated from the lack of gravity. Language is a colorful patois from the people that moved out to ‘The Belt’ and beyond. Conflict arises between Earth, Mars, and these distant settlers.

In many ways, it shares some similarities with Firefly (Ugh, I know, right?) with Earth being ‘The Central Planets’ and everything else sort of being like the outer worlds of ‘The Verse’. The similarities are superficial because there are far more forces at work in the solar system than there were in Firefly. Three-way political machinations, noir detective stories, Lovecraftian horrors, corrupt corporate research, etc.

There are flavors to science fiction, where you can have sci-fi horror, sci-fi fantasy, etc. In one half of the “author’s” point of view:

Daniel Abraham: As far as mapping the books to particular genres, Leviathan Wakes is our noir, Caliban’s War is our political thriller, Abaddon’s Gate is our haunted house story, and Cibola Burn is our western.

The Expanse will be a TV series too (don’t Firefly it.) It will be interesting to see how it gets adapted. The novels feel more like films in a series, than they feel like a television series. While I said that I didn’t think Ancillary Justice could be adapted for the screen, I can see how every single thing in these books can be adapted for the screen. Even descriptions of skips in time are discussed, as well as the way the chapters seem to cut between different points of view. I assume they will need to pad out some things and that each season will constitute approximately one book, since there are 10 episodes. I don’t think they’ll run in to the same lag George R.R. Martin has with the Game of Thrones series, because “James S.A. Corey” has been putting out one expanse novel a year, as well as some novellas.

Miller has been cast as Thomas Jane. Which, seems different from what I had pictured in my head, but not punishingly so.

Leviathan Wakes

The first book in the series starts with an abduction that goes awry. A woman is taken, and stuffed in to a locker on a ship. No one comes back to get her and she panics, escaping, only she comes face to face with something.

We spend the rest of the time wandering between the stories of a ice mining crew, with Jim Holden front and center, and the story of an eccentric noir detective trying to find the woman from the prologue, Detective Miller. The stories weave together, as one might expect, when we get to a big climax.

Throughout the novel, you get the flavor of the world, the politics, the personalities of it. There are some tropes in here, to be sure. The detective has more in common with characters of silver screen than with actual detectives. Amos, an gruff, violent, brute of a man, fills the gruff-violent-brute-of-a-man role. Holden, is your Han Solo, Mal Reynolds, dumb-rouge-with-a-heart-of-gold. Naomi is the smart one that plays hard to get. Alex Kamal is, basically, a cowboy pilot. That is not in any way a slight to these characters, they’re just fun, and they do fun stuff.

Also, there’s Fred, who’s your basic NPC mission dispatcher. He works for the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), but he’s basically there to give Holden things to do.


The main source of conflict in this book stems from the protomolecule — a term that I have never, ever been a fan of — A thing, like a virus, that traveled to the solar system on an asteroid that was captured by gravity. It’s payload held in stasis until humans do what it does best, and try to kill other humans with it.

The real lesson here, the one that the bad guys don’t learn, is that maybe you should not try to do that. It all goes wildly out of control as protomolecule spreads, and it becomes clear that it is programmed with its own agenda, one that threatens all of humanity — as these sorts of things are want to do.

Miller, who starts out as pretty annoying and whiny, really leaps to the forefront when action happens. From the instant we meet Holden, we expect him to save the day, but it’s really Miller (literally Miller) that saves the day. The dull stuff, at the start on Ceres, becomes more interesting as we see Miller break out of it in later episodes.

The ship, the Rocinante (Roci for short) is a Martian naval ship that Holden claims as salvage, and named after Don Quixote’s horse. The name should be a huge clue that it’s an indulgence of the author(s) more than an indulgence of the characters. Like in Star Trek, how every time someone says a line from a Shakespearean play, the other person in the scene says the act, scene, and line number. People are always very well versed about these sorts of things in the future. The Roci is our Millennium Falcon. Holden uses the Roci to pursue what he sees as “the right thing to do” — to solve the mystery, to keep war from happening, to find out who is controlling things behind the scenes.

It’s the assumption of this role, where he’s the guy that’s going to save the solar system, that sees him get hit with criticism by other powerful characters in the novel. His idea of fixing things involves sending out broadcasts to the entire solar system every time he finds a clue to something, with little regard to what effect his broadcasts will have. He’s a moron, but he’s going to save people.

When Miller convinces the seed of the protomolecule’s efforts to divert from Earth, to hit Venus, sacrificing all of them, he solves his case, and saves everyone. What’s on Venus is very much alive though.

Caliban’s War

The novel starts with marines patrolling outside domes on Ganymede. You know, normal stuff. Then nearly everyone is slaughtered by a gooey monster with our new POV character escaping, Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine.

A political thriller sounds incredibly dull. It’s not even presidents, monarchs, and dictators, it’s under secretaries. Oh boy? Yay?

Surprise! Chrisjen Avarsarala is the fucking best fucking character in the whole damn, mother-fucking series! She is a surly, cynical, foul-mouthed, teeny-tiny grandmother. Above all else, she knows how to play the game. Where those of us (sane people) find the prospect of intra-government and inter-government wheeling and dealing to be extremely tedious and corrupt, she takes great joy in wielding it to crush others. She even uses the inefficiency of government as a weapon to force others to bend to her. Naturally, this makes her unpopular with a great many people. She acquires a personal bodyguard, naturally, a Martian marine. The unlikely duo proceed to have a bit of fun with each taking turns being the ‘fish out of water’.

A third, new POV is Praxidike Meng. A father that has lost his little girl to a disease.

The bad guys here are related to the bad guys in the first novel, having not really learned anything from the events of the prior novel.


Just kidding about that ‘lost his little girl to a disease’ part, she was totes abducted by unscrupulous, evil scientists — my favorite kind.

Turns out, that the Protogen corporation’s buddies at Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile. The very same Jules-Pierre Mao that was the father of dead Julie Mao. Turns out, that JP is a bit of dick and he has a sample of the protomolecule that he’s still trying to weaponize. You know, because that worked really well before. This time he’s working with a doctor that likes to use children without immune systems as hosts for the protomolecule, and then the doctor puts an explosive on the infected youth in case they lose control of it. Great plan, guys.

It is immediately evident to the audience who the bad guys are, and it even becomes evident to the characters who the bad guys are, but — like politics — they have to move against this opponent carefully because JP has spent time ingratiating himself (paying them money) to more powerful politicians. Ones that have been promised the chance to bid on the weapon. It’s a really tangled web.

In the final battle, with the protomolecule-hybrid source located on Io, the bad guys fire the soldiers. A UN ship, the Agatha King, is hit by a hybrid, but the bomb failsafe fails to save the situation and the crew of the Agatha King become vomit zombies. Holden relives much of the tension from the Eros events in this cramped environment with infected marines. A minor character stays behind to detonate the King’s self destruct, which is pretty predictable. The author(s) might as well have let him live.

The part that makes me squeal with glee is watching Avasarala deal the deadliest blow in the whole book.

“This is not a negotiation,” Avasarala continued. “This is me gloating. I’m going to drop you into a hole so deep even your wife will forget you ever existed. I’m going to use Errinwright’s old position to dismantle everything you ever built, piece by piece, and scatter it to the winds. I’ll make sure you get to watch it happening. The one thing your hole will have is twenty-four-hour news. And since you and I will never meet again, I want to make sure my name is on your mind every time I destroy something else you left behind. I am going to erase you.”

Mao stared back defiantly, but Holden could see it was just a shell. Avasarala had known exactly where to hit him. Because men like him lived for their legacy. They saw themselves as the architects of the future. What Avasarala was promising was worse than death.

Mao shot a quick look at Holden, and it seemed to say, I’ll take those three shots to the head now, please.

Holden smiled at him.

Excerpt From: James S. A. Corey. “Caliban’s War.” iBooks

The title is a Shakespeare reference, The Tempest character Caliban, rebels against being controlled. It’s kind of a fault of these books that the titles are “Hey, look at me! I’m an author!” but I guess it’s better than a line someone says in the book. At least no one says, Caliban’s War in a trite way, like a Bond movie.

As for Venus, it percolates away through the corse of the novel and then spits a blob of matter out to the edge of the solar system. The blob forms a ring — a gate. We are visited by an apparition of Miller, the end.

Abaddon’s Gate

This book has the most POV character chapters of any of the books, and I blanked on all of their names when I was writing this. I’ll be honest — I really didn’t care for this book. I found it to be very dull, with things happening in ways that seemed illogical, and distracted me from really enjoying the novel as I had the first two.

We start with a kid from the belt. He’s racing in a little pod to go through The Ring, The Gate, formed by Venus’ phlegm in the last book. He thinks it’ll just really impress his bros. Unfortunately for him it was a dumb plan, and when his craft passes through the ring and slams to a slow crawl, splattering him inside the ship. The ship is no longer in the solar system, though it is visible through The Gate. It’s in a space without stars.

Carlos c de Baca (Bull) works for the OPA, and he’s in charge of the security forces on the OPA expedition to The Gate. He’s pretty bland. He means business. So much business.

Clarissa Mao, and her forged identity of Melba, are out to get revenge on Holden for putting her father in jail in the previous novel. She’s taken her money and put it in to extensive body modifications that are more like something from Neuromancer than anything we’ve seen in ‘The Expanse’ series so far. Her revenge plan is totally weird and convoluted.

Anna, a peace-loving Methodist joins the UN expedition to The Gate as a representative of the Methodist World Council. Other religious bodies have also sent envoys. There is a lot of theological discussion in scenes with her, about what the protomolecule means about god, what The Ring means about god. It’s pretty dull, and well-trodden in other science fiction books.


Holden keeps seeing that Miller hallucination and it keeps telling him to go to The Ring. You know, for reasons.

Long story short, all these competing factions vying for power want to go through the gate so they can stick a flag on whatever they find and say that they own it. You know, human stuff. This results in greedy people, and fearful people, doing incredibly stupid things that make everything worse for all of the people there.

They determine the speed that things can move before some force knocks it back down to barely a crawl. This is important, because no one wants to turn in to soup when they suddenly decelerate. Then a bunch of dumb, greedy morons vying for power violate that speed and make everything grind to a halt, braking ships, and stranding them all.

Holden has to go to the station — the thing the Miller hallucination wants — and try to turn off the field keeping all their ships knocked out.

What could go wrong? Oh yeah, some idiots are dispatched after Holden to keep him from the station because they need to enforce their claim on it. You know, human concerns.

Holden and the Miller hallucination make their way through chambers of the station and discover some sort of viewing system that Holden can use to see what happened. Unfortunately, what he sees makes no sense. The civilization that made the protomolecule, rings, and station, vanished because of an encroaching enemy that was able to spread through them, and disable their systems. They blew up solar systems to try and keep it from spreading, and then eventually killed the gate network as a quarantine procedure. No details are given, no explanation of the builder’s motivations. Nothing makes any sense with them. They just built all this stuff for their empire that did… things? We never know. I would not complain about this things being kept from the audience except for the fact that they’re literally using the computers those guys had. Computers that have the ability to make a human mind feel like it is on another world stored inside of the memory banks. It’s not like there’s a lack of detail in that stored information, guys.

Holden turns it all off, and opens all the gates that were closed for the quarantine — you know, because that seems like a real good idea.

This is why I find this third novel so frustrating. Nothing really makes much sense. You can’t go in to detail here, and leave other things as vague sketches. The characters that are added are also unappealing. Did I mention that Clarissa is an idiot? I miss the characters from Caliban’s War. Where’s my swearing-grandmother chapters?

Cibola Burn

We start with Bobbie Draper on Mars. She’s just chilling with her family and they’re chit chatting about the first colony humanity’s put out through the rings, and what it will mean for them when — BOOM! Huge explosion at that colony.

Turns out the colony was started by former OPA citizens from Ganymede — you remember that lovely place, right? The one that the evil bad guys turned inside-out in Caliban’s War? Well refugees skipped on through and landed on this planet before anyone had set up traffic control around the ring station. This is politically complicated, because Earth feels like it has the mandate to dole out who gets to colonize what. They give that charter to Royal Charter Energy. RCE thinks they own the whole planet, and that the Ganymede people are squatters.

Since the gates opened in the previous novel, all we’re left wondering is how long it’s going to take for Holden to go through them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to go all that badly. He’s been dodging Miller’s requests to go, and just doing simple runs. Fred and Avasarala commission Holden, and the crew of the Roci to go mediate an escalating situation on the first colony world through one of the alien gates. This is something Holden is hilariously ill-suited to do. Fred and Avasarala both seem to know he’s going to fail.


This novel is much better than Abaddon’s Gate. The fact that almost no characters from the previous novel are here, and the rest are from the first two books, should give you an indication of how weak and unloved A.G. characters are. Avarasala’s colorful cameos made me laugh out loud while I read them.

“If Fred is showing this to you, Holden, know that your home planet appreciates your service. Also try not to put your dick in this. It’s fucked enough already.”

Excerpt From: James S. A. Corey. Cibola Burn. iBooks

Havelock was always a jerk, but this novel lets him redeem himself. He’s not evil, he was never evil, he just didn’t think things through until 3/4 of this novel were over.

Elvi is a frustrating character though. She’s a mouse of a scientist. She has a crush on Holden, and she stammers when she talks to him, and she says things in such a way that characters are always telling her to say it “in English” — you know, because she’s a scientist. She was fine, I just won’t miss her if she doesn’t turn up again. I think she was supposed to be the character we identified with, our way in to this alien planet, but really that was Holden.

Basia chapters were ones I dreaded reading. He thinks in very small, selfish ways, and that doesn’t make for good reading. Even when he starts to realize he was wrong, he’s still fixated on things he can’t change, and reading someone selfishly beat themselves up is pretty unappealing. His redemption does make sense, even though, I think they still should have carted him off for a trial and some jail time.

We never have a chapter from Murty’s POV, but he is very present throughout the book and we really get a sense of how crazypants he is. His actions have a brutal nihilistic logic to them. He’d rather they all suffered and died so he could say he did his duty, than have them all live, and lose RCE’s claim.

The thing that struck me the most when I read this novel were the themes of violent, and disproportional shows of force making matters worse. This was in the previous novel too, but here, it’s a much clearer divide between the RCE security forces, and the down-on-their-luck squatters. RCE forces using military grade gear to suppress crowds, and enforce a curfew. To bug a town, and shoot down anyone that might threaten their control. This is clear abuse of power in a way that isn’t corrupt corporate science. For several characters, it is more important to be the winner, than it is to be alive. For Murty, it certainly is about enforcing rights at all costs, and making the claim stick. Assaulting, and murdering, unarmed civilians, as well as arming a militia to make sure another ship can’t escape with lithium ore. He’d rather they all died, with himself on the top of the pile, than see anyone benefit at his expense.

The tension is present with Amos and Holden. Amos wants to kill the killer, and Holden and wants to keep things from escalating. Holden’s plan is not a good one because Murty repeatedly threatens every one. Amos’ would lead to a total clusterfuck, but Murty wouldn’t have been there to feed anyone ideas on how to increase the suffering.

After all, people want to believe in their institutions of security. They want to believe that police, or rent-a-cops, or the military will keep everyone alive. That they won’t violate rights. Arguably, if the RCE Governor had not died in the crash, Murty would not have been able to assume total authority, to declare martial law.

We have a long history of abuse of police power in the United States, and in many other countries. Sadly, while I was reading this book, real-world events were escalating in horrific ways in the US once more.

The one thing that unified all the characters in the book, for a brief time, was a planet-wide disaster. A malfunctioning, alien reactor detonated and sent a shockwave around the planet. Alien defense systems disabled fusion reactors for the ships, and everyone had to survive. Even Murty cooperated and they all survived, along with the blinding microorganisms in the rain, and the toxic slime. They were all exactly the same, their guns, armor, and ship made no difference at all.

Naomi is able to get Havelock to see how his plan to just follow orders is going to get them all killed, or at least caused a lot of unnecessary death. From the POV chapters up to this point, we saw glimpses of the doubt Havelock had, as well as his sense of duty, of wrapping himself in the safe mannerisms and opinions of his superiors. The thing that sent Havelock over the edge to Naomi’s side was the prospect of arming the amateur militia he had been training. Nothing about it felt hollow or out of place, and I think it was really well executed. It was not selfish, it was selfless. He wasn’t protecting Naomi to save himself, he was doing it to protect his own men, and everyone else, too.

One really big nitpick I have is the obviousness of the blinding plague. The mechanism of it was novel, but the second they said the name of the only person not affected by the disease, Holden, I knew it was the anti-cancer meds he takes. The doctor even takes a full medical history of Holden, and surely must have known that it was the ONLY thing none of the other people were taking. It made me hard to believe any of the doctors or scientists were remotely capable people when it was so obvious.

Speaking of obvious, as soon as Naomi said she would sneak over to the weaponized shuttle and put in a kill-switch I knew things would go South. Any time a character spells out a whole plan in these books it always goes awry in some way. The only successful plans are the ones that happen outside the POV of the current narrator. Thus, Naomi’s whole plan about the switch was going to fall apart, and she’d be out in space. They should have holed the dumb shuttle on the spot and just sent their evidence back to Earth.

The other strange thing is that everyone is worried about touching the protomolecule in the first two books, and then people are rubbing all over stuff in this book. It seemed pretty out of place that no one even voiced a concern about it.

The really-really big thing that bugged me was Miller. Not the way that Miller talks, I’m a huge fan of the color he provides to scenes. What bugs me is that he has weird limits on his power and knowledge that fluctuate as needed by the story. It is also bothersome that when things are going wrong on the alien planet that Holden doesn’t use whatever limited knowledge Miller might have. For instance, when Miller gets Holden to go to the material transport network, he finds a whole cavern, nice and safe, underground. He scolds Miller that they could have used that, and Miller, rightfully, points out that Holden never asked him. They really should not have been dodging helping each out. If Holden’s people were safe, it would have gotten Miller what he wanted, sooner.

What did Miller want? I’m still confused. I thought he wanted to better understand the thing that killed all the alien technology, but he just seems to want to use it to commit suicide and take down all the alien technology on the planet — possibly elsewhere. Since Miller was part of the Earth’s Ring, carried on a lump in the cargo bay of the Roci, did the Earth’s Ring die? Did it’s higher-level functions just die and it still functions? Because everything on the alien world seems to have died. Does killing all the alien tech benefit them at this point? It was malfunctioning, but it was supposedly malfunctioning because of this artifact. Hey, wait, isn’t the artifact still there? Why is no one panicking about that?! There’s a lovecraftian hole in space that tore apart Elvi and reassembled her, killed all the alien tech, and no one’s worried that it’s still there? Who would just be like, “All right guys, let’s take Murty to justice and let these settlers keep on assembling a shanty town on DEATH WORLD.” If you wanted that ending, then at least don’t let the audience know there’s a ball of nothingness lingering around, unsolved. I know there are nine books, but at least make the ball of nothingness go away until another book can figure it out! That’s the part that feels like Abaddon’s Gate. Don’t leave nonsensical loose ends just dangling there like that.

Indeed, we close with an Avarasala epilogue where she explains that Holden was set up to fail, to slow things down. To make it so things would take longer, because it’s going to drain out the people wanting to settle on Mars, Martian military tools and ships will fall off ledgers as it shrinks away and all the colonists settle their own Death World. You get a Death World and you get a Death World! Everyone look under your seats, you’ve all got Death Worlds!

The only part of the conclusion I found satisfying was Avarasala trying to enroll Bobbie Draper. I can only hope that the next book is another swear-filled adventure of intrigue.

2014-08-18 15:53:56

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