Caliban's War (The Expanse)
by James S.A. Corey
Cover Artist: Daniel Dociu
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316129060
Date: 26 June 2012 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Caliban's War is the second book in James S.A. Corey's space opera series The Expanse. The action moves back and forth across our solar system, with Mars and many of the moons of the outer planets colonized by humans. The major powers are Mars and Earth, in a state of cold war, with the Outer Planets Alliance as a fledgling third government struggling for legitimacy. It becomes clear that someone in this tangled political environment has been trying to make the deadly alien "protomolecule" introduced in the Leviathan Wakes into a biological weapon, and the threat of this new super weapon threatens to shatter the fragile peace between Mars and Earth.
The story is fast paced and gripping, and it combines this with intelligent plotting and strong, subtly rendered characters, making it stand out from other space operas.
The story shuttles between several point-of-view characters, including an important UN politician, a geneticist whose daughter has been kidnapped, and a Martian marine who sees her squad ripped apart by the protomolecule weapon. However, the most central character is James Holden, the captain of the stolen Martian missile corvette Rocinante (the name of Don Quixote's horse, in one of several subtle ways that the novel shows off the intelligence beneath its glitzy surface). Holden and his crew are outsiders, sought by the governments of both Earth and Mars, and working for the fledgling Outer Planets Alliance.
Holden and his crew are examples of a type that has become prevalent in SF of late. They are a tight knit crew with spotty pasts who operate at or beyond the edge of legality, who (almost) always find it in themselves to do the right thing, and hopefully get paid too. In other words, they hew fairly closely to the Firefly set up. Still, this is popular because it works, and Corey does an excellent job of it. Holden's character arc is particularly well done, exploring his understandable trauma after the events of the first novel in the series in a realistic way that deepens his character and his ties to the rest of the crew.
The plot is excellently structured, with the rising threat slowly revealed and all the far flung point of view characters brought together for the big showdown. The climax is perhaps not quite as climatic as one might have hoped, but it is still satisfying, and sets up the third novel very well. What sets this novel apart from other space opera thrillers, however, is the realistic way it deals with the consequences of the characters actions. The characters aren't perfect, and they make mistakes, either through being thrust into situations they aren't prepared for, or through sheer overconfidence. When they do, their actions have real consequences, and the novels refusal to let its characters off the hook for their behavior makes the characters all the more believable. Corey also does an excellent job of providing all of his characters with realistic motivations, and they tend to have more psychological depth than the average space opera protagonist.
I have not read the first novel in the series, and I can say that it is perfectly possible to read this book first. Corey provides all the information the reader needs to get up to speed. However, I would recommend reading them in order, since this novel obviously contains spoilers for the first novel. I fully intend to go back and read book one, and then eagerly await the third volume. This is some of the most entertaining SF I have read in years, and it never insults the readers intelligence along the way.