Once more unto the void we go, threshing our way through the terrible and unforgiving storyline that is The Expanse universe. And what a ride this book has been.
Which actually makes me really sad because, at the time of writing this review, specifically mid October, I am going to have to wait over half a year for the next installment to arrive in paperback! I know, I could fork out those extra couple of quid for the hardback, but I've got all the previous volumes in the paper and I ran out of space on the bookshelves months ago. Plus, I'm not a massive fan of hardback simply for conservational reasons - which makes me a massive hypocrite when it comes to the subject of roleplaying game rule books, but then again, paperback editions of a rulebook don't last long (how many copies of Cyberpunk 2020 did you go through? My last copy doesn't have a front and rear cover and I'm pretty certain there's pages missing from either end to boot).
But I digress...
Abaddon's Gate is the third book in the Expanse series as written by James S. A. Corey, a writing team that includes George R. R. Martin's assistant, who, in my opinion, is producing significantly better work. More about that, or not... not sure yet...
Today, I will be digressing a fair bit, by the looks of things, but that, I suspect, is my final word on Martin and GoT (unless, a certain website chief asks me to review his book(s) or something and gets me drunk enough to actually say 'yes'... and that would have to be pretty damn drunk: I'm a big guy and have been known to put a fair bit away and still walk a couple of miles to find my bed).
Let me get started with the title, or more specifically with the titles, because for a change I really like them. As a lazy-ass writer myself, on occassion, I absolutely appreciate the challenge of finding a title to any given piece of work: for me, if the title doesn't just pop out there and then I have to stick with a working title until something comes along and, if I'm going to continue with this tirade of honesty, I'm appauling at picking titles. And these are just so perfect for the frame of the stories behind them; Leviathan Wakes is the introduction of an entity that is impossible to comprehend for the characters and the civilization described, Caliban's War introduces the monsters that 'learned our language' but pale by comparrison to the political scene behind their very creation, and Abaddon's Gate simply is just that - The Ring is, as far as this book is concerned, a gate in Hell. The titles aren't even particulalrly subtle by the time you reach the end of the book(s), they have captured the theme of the piece along with a literary or historical 'hook' that makes it sound just that little bit sexy.
The cover is an element I've never been entirely certain about - ordinarily, I love love cover art - it comes from paying so much time and interest in marketting and seeing movie posters and reading a lot of comic books: the cover is meant to sell you the book, it's entire design is supposed to scream amongst all of the other literature 'PICK ME! PICK ME!!!' and 'JUST TAKE ONE LOOK AT ME! GO ON, YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO!!!', which is an oddity since so very little cover art these days grabs me. Sadly, in the case of The Expanse series, I'm still not grabbed. Maybe I'm just looking for something that's just not there or can't be seen because all you ever see first is book's spine and they're about as eye catching as a moldy potato. That's not to say that the art work is bad, it's just it doesn't really convey anything to me... but hey, I'm not buying a book for it's cover art, am I...
Abaddon's Gate follows a considerably more spiritual theme; if Levithan Wakes was to introduce the future in general and Caliban's War was to show the political and corporate machinations, then the third book is to peer in to the spiritual upheaval that the introduction of an alien construct that, utterly defies the laws of physics as we know them, has on the general populace, and we get some fantastic insight in to that over the course of the story, especially as we follow several religiously biased characters throughout the story.
Again the chapters follow specific characters who are intrinsic to the plot's development, but in this book, one of those characters is a villain!
Once more, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are dragged, virtually kicking and screaming, in to the fray - Holden by this point entirely unconvinced that he wants anything to do with the Protomolecule construct that has been completed on the far side of Uranus; specifically a massive ring with an utterly black centre, and yet all the sensors denote that there is space beyond it, but not in our solar system. Holden has decided he want sot be as far away from that thing as humanly possible and is willing to take fairly sketchy jobs in order to do it, however, due to a plan put in motion by forces unseen the Rocinante is about to be locked down at Ceres due to the Martian government wanting their warship back. Enter a media crew who want to go to the Ring and Holden and the gang ultimately finding themselves en route to the one place they'd least like to be.
But that's not all for Holden. He's now getting semi-regular visits from his old pal Detective Miller, or at least an apparition that screams protomolecule simulation of the dead detective, which for the reader is apparent, but for Holden and the rest it's not so clear, especially given the protomolecules ability to subvert the very laws of the universe by powers unknown.
Meet the Reverend Doctor Anna Volovodov. She's a Christian priest operating out of Europa, a wife to her lovely wife and mother to her lovely daughter. Her introductory chapter is a bit of an oddity for me, as Corey gives her a bit of an edge; this character is not a pacifist, especially since she's happy to tase a wife beater repeatedly and stitch him up for atttempted assault, but then she goes on to be the soul of the book, leaving her wife and child to go back to Earth while she is summoned by rich and famous types to head out to the Ring, along with a host of celebrities for entirely political reasons, and struggles with trying to find her niche within such a odd community. She's an adorable character whose role in the story is not solely to provide a religious view to the universe, but in my opinion to offer an element of humanity and empathy to what will become a heaving bloodbath by the end of the book. A voice of reason and a foil to the religious mandate of a celebrity priest, Hector Cortez, as they find themselves ultimately on opposing side of an etymological crisis, not to mention a particularly physical one.
And then there's Bull. 'Bull' is the new head of security aboard the Behemoth. The ship that, in previous books, was the Mormon colony ship Nauvoo has been repurposed by Fred Johnson and the Outer Planets Alliance (O.P.A.) to be the figurehead of the new OPA fleet. A massive warship witht he capacity to hold multiple ships within it and bristling with hard points, many of which are simply not up to specification, Bull's job on its shakedown cruise and the imminent mission of providing the OPA with a presence at the Ring is no easy task, especially when it becomes common knowledge that he's been stepped down from the XO position already and is an Earther on a Belter ship. He is however supported by Sam in Engineering, who has a running relationship witht he crew of the Roci and is a character that the reader simply can't help but like. He will however have to answer to the Captain, an officer in the OPA with a good record but concerned with how people see him, and the new XO whose protocols are specifically by-th-book and doesn't like fast-and-loose security work, something that Bull is actually quite proficient at. I really liked Bull as a character and as the story progresses he become s more and more invloving, to the point where I was very much looking forward to his next chapter to see how he was going to manae those around him next, and he plays by a particualrly 'Ender's Game' playbook, I hasten to add.
Last, but by no means least, there's Melba... Melba Koh isn't Melba Koh. She'd like to be Melba, but she's not. SHe needs to be Melba in order to hide her true heritage, one that is already steeped in the blood of thousands of people and is pivotal to the previous development of the protomolecule in the system and the shenanigans of the previous books. This character, wihtout giving too much away, is barking mad.
Not just a little crazy, she is bat-shit insane.
She has motivation, money, a plan (mostly) and the connections with which to bring about her ultimate goal: the humiliation and destruction of James Holden. The hate she holds for that man is something akin to that of legends. She has spent months concocting a plan to publicly destroy Holden for his activities in the last book, specifically, but she's been observing everything about him. And not just about Holden, she's acquired dosiers on each member of the crew and the up to date schematics of the Rocinante. Oh yes, she's determined to fuck their shit up something fierce.
As characters go, she's not particualrly two dimensional, which is a massive failing for many villains in stories because while there is a trend for writers attempting to give the reader a sense of justification for why villains do the horrible things that they do, it's easy to forget that the single minded focus of a person determined to ruin someone and then kill them is so intense that most other aspects of life, the universe and everything sort of bounce off them as irrelevent and therefore amkes them a two dimensional character by default.
Melba, however, is wrestling with her psychopathy, she kills and then regrets in one particular instance that furnishes her character with a wealth of empathy that I really wasn't expecting, she can justify the murder just fine, but her ability to come to terms with what she'd done and the fact that the victim was entirely innocent places her with something of a quandry as she develops through the situation.
This is, once again, a tremendous ride. it's a slow start that is pocked with the occasional incident which adds minute flavours to the overall story, but then as a reader you find yourself quite suddenly thrown in to a world of hurt and then for the rest of the book it simply doesn't stop. Without a particualr spoiler, the reader is following Holden as he is exploring the unknown with Miller's guidance, only to be accosted and forces the protomolecule to react in the most vivid manner it deems necessary. Holden is in a safe place at the time (or at least safer than the rest of the fleet, by all accounts) only for the reader to be transported to fleet, via a new chapter and the experiences of one of the other characters (Anna, I think) and the chaos presiding over everyone and everything.
All of the books have contained a fair amount of graphic violence, horror and gore, but in this particular book it feels more intimate. The bone crunchingly accute depiction of how physical force can turn the Human form in to floppy meat sack is harrowing in some cases and, it's fair to say, this book contains character deaths that will revolt the reader, not because of the way they've died, but more how and why. There are fewer twists in the plot, but there are several logical reactions and they usher in a favourable rise in the intensity and suspense that the climax delivers with unwavering integrity.
Again, a well written story with a fantastic sense of intimacy and scale all thrown in to one managable and well paced book. IF you've liked the previous two, this third installment will not disappoint.
Abaddon's Gate is published by Orbit Books and is also available as an E-book.