If there is anything Ty Franck and James Corey have done superbly in the Expanse series of novels to date, it is to maintain a strong sense of momentum through each of the plots. Plot devices that a lot of other writers would introduce at the beginning then string out throughout the narrative into a climax are dealt with at midway points, leaving the remainder of story to evolve in surprising ways through a new series of surprising devices and scenes. This results in stories which not only move briskly but unexpectedly, as well as entertainingly given that each subsequent revelation has been made to fit organically with the wider setting and character arcs. The series remains space opera to the core, but if anything is extremely well plotted space opera—to date. Let’s see if 2013’s Abaddon’s Gate, third novel in the series, keeps the engines burning. (Yeah, I know, bad pun. Sorry.)
Picking up events more than a year after Caliban’s War, Holden and crew traverse the system, running odd contracts. Things are going profitably for the crew when a notice arrives that the Martians want the Roccinante back. In the meantime, Julie Mao’s sister Clarissa has been plotting revenge on Holden for the losses he caused her father and family. Posing as a mechanic aboard a system ship, she spends her savings putting in place a plan that will see the tough but fair captain, dead. Bull de Baca is security officer aboard the Seung Un, formerly known as the Nauvoo. Wary of Captain Ashford’s ability to command, de Baca nevertheless goes about his business, removing the riff-raff from among the ship’s population directly—sometimes through airlocks. And lastly is Anna Volodov. A Methodist minister, she has been invited along with a host of other religious representatives aboard the Seung Un for a trip of a lifetime. It isn’t long, however, before her skills as confidante and soother of souls is needed in the face of disaster.
Binding all these character arcs together are the happenings on Venus, particularly the growth of the protomolecule. Forming a ring and flying off to the outer reaches of the solar system at the end of Caliban’s War, it remains for Abaddon’s Gate to delve deeper into what lies on the other side of the ring, how all of the stories above intersect upon it, and what the protomolecule’s interest in humanity is.
One of the interesting aspects of Leviathan Wakes was the ideological dichotomy of Holden and Miller. One reserved, preferring to learn about the entire situation before passing judgement, the other looked to the facts at hand to deliver instant justice—a kind of rationalism vs. intuition. In Abaddon’s Gate, Franck and Abraham bring to the table another interesting dichotomy. With many religious leaders and representatives aboard the Seung Un as it travels to the protomolecule gate, there is plenty of room for disparities in belief. But the authors do not get involved in a war of ethics and mythologies. Instead, they boil the various representative characters down to their human elements, allowing the façade of religion to exude from the bones beneath through the dramas they face. Thus, fear and faith come to the surface. And rightly so. One may believe in god or gods, but when placed in life and death situations peoples’ true characters shine through, their real beliefs, regardless of name, revealing themselves. Thus while religious belief plays a role in the novel, it’s quite fair to say the back and forth relationship it has with reality plays a more interesting, human role in the novel.
As hinted in the intro, Abaddon’s Gate is once again a novel whose story evolves quickly but organically. Clarissa’s intentions, for example, resolve themselves in the first third, letting the reader absorb their impact then evolve through the changes they bring as a result. Another way of putting this is: whatever assumptions the reader brings to the table after all the story introductions are likely to pan out in different but satisfying ways than expected. When looking at fiction as entertainment, I can’t help but think of that as one of the key boxes for an author to check off.
At this point in time the series, all readers who are not captured by The Expanse have jumped ship, leaving only readers who are wondering: is the next book in the series as good as the previous? Answer: yes. The qualities present in the first books are present in the third, but in a way that progresses all the storylines, macro to micro, and in a way that answers as many questions as it produces, meaning... the need for another novel. On to Cibola Burn…