Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
The protomolecule, a mysterious and dangerous alien entity, has landed on Venus and is doing god-knows-what on the surface of the planet. Earth, Mars and the Belt are continuing to ignore this threat and are instead concentrating on their own petty conflicts. Captain Jim Holden is engaged in policing the depths of space against pirates on behalf of the Outer Planets Alliance, until the war between Earth and Mars suddenly escalates and he finds himself caught in the middle once more. Caliban’s War is set about a year after the events of Leviathan Wakes, and once again follows the unlikely yet exciting adventures of Jim Holden and his rag-tag crew. Oh, and don’t forget the vomit zombies.
Caliban’s War is structured in the same way as its predecessor, with each chapter told from alternating characters’ points of view. However, while the first book only had two POV characters, this one has four, including one returning character and three new ones. I was a bit leery when I realised there were so many new characters – especially as the first book felt so intimate and focused with just two – but it quickly became apparent that there was nothing for me to worry about, as I actually found all three of the new characters to be even more engaging that the ‘main’ character Holden. Whereas Holden and Miller were kind of quite similar, the new cast are wonderfully varied. Chrisjen Avasarala is an elderly, foul-mouthed, no-nonsense politician and grandmother; Bobbie Draper is a Martian Marine torn between loyalty to her planet and her own conscience; Prax Meng is a scientist hellbent on rescuing his missing daughter; and of course Holden is the self-righteous yet brave pilot of the Rocinante and star of the first Expanse novel Leviathan Wakes.
Out of all the characters, I found Bobbie in particular to be very sympathetic and likeable (think Brienne of Tarth in a spacesuit), and Avasarala’s chapters are also thoroughly entertaining to read (I can’t wait to see Shohreh Aghdashloo playing the role in the TV series – she’s perfect). One surprising upside of having so many new characters is that it allows us get to know the supporting cast a lot better too: the crew of the Rocinante seem to get more page time in Caliban’s War, largely because some of the new characters spend a lot of time with members of the crew who were somewhat sidelined in the first book. So, while Holden spent a lot of time with Naomi in Leviathan Wakes, here we learn a lot more about Amos (who was just engineer-slash-muscle in the first book) through his growing friendship with Prax. Similarly the underdeveloped character of Alex the pilot is given a bit more personality (albeit only a tiny bit) as we see him develop a tentative relationship with his fellow Martian Bobbie, who is seemingly out of his league in every way.
In terms of plot, I think that the reason the shifting POVs work so well is because the actual story is so tightly focused. Despite the fact that they are occasionally separated by thousands of kilometres of empty space, the characters are all ultimately working on the same page and towards the same goal. After a certain point they all become threads of the main story, and this gives the book focus and coherence – especially when compared to other series that use the same method to switch between disparate and sometimes unrelated storylines, which is not only jarring but also totally kills the momentum (yeah, GRRM, I’ve got my eye on you). Caliban’s War also manages to weave in half-forgotten threads from the first novel, which I found both unexpected and delightful; and the main plot is wrapped up nicely whilst also paving the way for the continuation of the underlying protomolecule saga, ensuring that Jim Holden and his crew will have plenty to occupy them for a few more books at least.
Even more so than its predecessor, Caliban’s War is a fun, fast-paced and accessible SF adventure. It’s exciting and occasionally silly, and it’s not ashamed of being a bit over-the-top, which is probably what makes it so enjoyable. That’s also probably why I wasn’t ashamed at gasping out loud at a shocking revelation on the very last page, and why I’m exceedingly glad that I have the sequel, Abaddon’s Gate, immediately to hand.