Strange Dogs by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. Then there was The Vital Abyss, an extra novella, like this one. Strange Dogs falls between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising.

The day after the stick moons appeared, Cara killed a bird.

And a strange one it is. Like The Vital Abyss, this installation stars different characters and takes place in a different setting than the main thread of The Expanse, but in the same general world (in the sense of worldbuilding, universe, galaxy, although none of these are accurate terms in the “world” of The Expanse). These extra novellas are digressions from the central storyline, but in the same way that each novel also enters new subplots and introduces new characters; the difference there is that the novel then returns to Holden et al, where these novellas live and die in the otherworld.

Here we are on Laconia, one of the “new worlds” opened by the ring gates, and we center on a young girl named Cara. I believe she is eight year old. She was born on Earth but taken by her parents to Laconia as an infant; it’s the only world she’s ever known. While this novella forgoes the first person perspective taken by The Vital Abyss, its close third person means that we see Laconia through her eyes, which I think is a useful way to learn about both the planet and the girl, and the blind spots and confusions natural to her experience: her misunderstandings of Earth and the two worlds’ differences, for example.

In a nutshell, this is a retelling of Pet Sematary. While spending a day down at the pond like she likes to, Cara encounters some (yes) strange dogs she’s never seen before; but when she tells them to leave, they do so. She offers bread to a sunbird (something like a duck), because she saw a woman do just this in a book, from Earth. (Please note: bread is bad for ducks on Earth, too!) This kills the bird. Cara is distressed. Against her mother’s wishes, she then steals the family drone to try and save the ducklings she has orphaned. Cara accidentally breaks the drone as well: Mama Bird and drone, both broken. But lo, the strange dogs return and bring Mama Bird back to life, and they fix the drone as well. When Cara’s little brother is hit by a car and killed, guess what she thinks to do with him.

I find it a little odd how closely this book rips off Stephen King, but I’m not upset about it; there’s nothing new under the sun. Picasso said “good artists copy; great artists steal.” And if you’re going to steal, by all means King is a great source. There’s only so much mystery, for me, involved in the outcome of bringing little brother back to life; but the events that follow do leave some questions, and the novella ends with these questions unresolved. I’m curious; I hope we’ll learn more in future books, and it sounds like we will. (I spent a little time reading reviews on Goodreads, and reactions vary widely, of course. In fact, a better discussion lives here.)

If this book is an obvious rip-off of Pet Sematary, that doesn’t mean it’s not a creative retelling, well constructed and imaginative. Recall the adage, again, that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. (Other versions have a few more stories in the world, but the point is their finite number.) If there are only a few stories, it’s about how we tell and retell them, right? Corey engaged me with this one. Cara’s difficulty parsing the two worlds – the one she knows, and the one her parents come from – is an intriguing problem. The foreign flora and fauna of Laconia are at the heart of this book’s conflict, and raise concerns that later books (I’m sure) will continue to deal with. We are reminded of the “new world” problems of Cibola Burn. And the ending, which some reviewers have taken issue with, I found thought-provoking and appropriately teasing.

Ready for more, always!


Rating: 8 complexly jointed legs.

The Vital Abyss by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. This novella falls between Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn.

Just a quickie, this novella takes places entirely within a prison of sorts, a single large room accommodating about three dozen of the research scientists from Thoth Station – the ones who helped orchestrate the massacre at Eros starring the Protomolecule. It’s told in the first-person perspective of a Dr. Cortazar, a nanoinformatics researcher who agreed to undergo a ‘procedure’ which, let’s say, burned away his compassion and empathy and allowed him to undertake this genocidal work. In the present-tense of the novella, we’re between Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn, as I’ve said; but Cortazar’s flashbacks take us through the development and the events at Eros themselves, too, from a perspective we haven’t seen before.

It’s a hell of an interesting ambition, this little book, in several ways. For one thing, the protagonist is not going to be a sympathetic character; he’s part of a massive mass murder, and feels not the least guilt. For another, the present of the story mostly takes place in this single large room, with the petty dramas and extreme boredom of the captives. It’s a story in which not much happens, in the present at least – more happens in flashbacks, but even the Eros events are rather offscreen. Cortazar’s background previous to these events is the more interesting episode, in my opinion.

This novella will engage the series fan, not least with the familiar voice of Jefferson Mays. I think its greatest contribution to the larger body of work is in the curious sociopathy of Cortazar and his fellow researchers (this is the note on which it ends, which is not giving away much). I enjoyed seeing the worldbuilding minds of Corey applied to a new storyline: that of Cortazar as a youngster, his mother’s illness and his own academic studies, and so on. It’s more of the same good stuff. It’s a minor offshoot of the series as a whole, with I think minimal impact on the whole, but it was entertaining and absorbing. And who knows? Maybe Cortazar will return as a player and I’ll be wrong about the minimal impact here.

Well worth the time.


Rating: 7 pills.

Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, and now book six, Babylon’s Ashes.

I realize I keep going light on plot summary with these books, and I’m going to continue that trend here – you can get synopses elsewhere (as usual, Tor.com does a good job), and I feel pretty strongly that that’s not the point for me, with this series in particular. I’m here for the people. And they are delightfully developed in each episode. This book is delicious in its continuing development of everyone in turn. I feel that we’re consolidating our cast of characters, swelling the ranks of the Rocinante‘s crew to include Bobbie and Clarissa, and keeping up with Fred Johnson, Avasarala, Marco and Filip, and even (in prologue and epilogue) checking in with Anna Volovodov. Michio Pa is back with a still larger role to play; and Praxidike Meng, like Anna, plays a smallish role, but the presence of each of these returning characters would seem to indicate that they’ll have more to contribute in future books.

As the title indicates (and I have to say this is the first time I’ve found the title even glancingly related to the book’s contents!), the world is changing irrevocably; the question now is simply whether humanity will survive the coming years. Naturally, it is only thanks to the Rocinante‘s crew – well, with some help – that they have a chance at all.

I’m a little surprised it took me this long to notice a habit: all the characters in The Expanse consistently push their food away before they’ve finished it. All the foods, it seems, coagulate or degrade quickly into something pasty. (Almost all of these foods are made from a finite list of ingredients, things like mushrooms and yeast, and they tend to get gummy.) Sometimes it’s because something sad or bad happens and the character is suddenly no longer hungry. But whatever the reason, I’m not sure I’ve seen a character finish a meal yet – I typed, before getting to the epilogue, where Anna’s daughter Nami remarkably does so. Still, there’s a pattern. They’re always pushing the bowl away or putting it in the recycler. Funny what we notice. Funny the habits of a writer (or in this case, writers): the Corey team seems unable to let our folks eat to satiation.

Also, whoever it was that said that all science fiction is really set in the present (my buddy CT thinks it was Ursula Le Guin) was not wrong. This series’s new world is different in many of its details – including some pretty basic building blocks of life, like food, and travel, and the air we breathe – but all that is just so much window dressing, when it comes down to it. The essential problems in this world are the same old ones: how humans get along with each other. Power grabbing, greed, the needs of the disenfranchised to eat and breathe up against the “needs” of some selfish jerk or another to control everything. Racism now follows what part of the solar system a person comes from; ethnicity seems to be a non-issue, but really the discrimination has just shifted its focus. I deeply appreciate this new lens on an old problem: when I say that this is just the same story set in a different world, or that its details are window dressing, I don’t mean to be dismissive. I think it’s extraordinary. And sometimes we need new backdrops to recognize old problems in a fresh new way. If certain problem presidents were in a book club, maybe they could read this series; I don’t know.

Deep, complex characters, entertaining dialog (Corey is back on their stride after some hiccups), a racing plot, and the big questions about capital-H Humanity: I love this stuff as much as ever. You can expect more reviews to follow. Hooray!


Rating: 8 rocks.

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, and now book five, Nemesis Games.

Reviewing the end of that last (book four) review I wrote, I am happy to report that we did indeed get Jefferson Mays back as narrator, and Avasarala and Bobbie Draper. Of all people, Clarissa Mao returns as well. Our four central characters, the ‘family’ of Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex, get split up in this story, which is excruciating for each of them (some more than others), and each on their separate adventures gets substantial backstory development. Bobbie doesn’t get backstory so much as she gets screentime in which to be a friend and developing character, particularly to Alex. I love it, put simply. I don’t want to say much more, plot-wise, but don’t think I have to. It’s my impression here that the hard sci-fi stuff falls away perhaps more than ever, and the people – their relationships, personalities, and interpersonal dynamics – step forward. Which of course is what I’m here for.

The Tor.com article is called “Team Dynamics”, which is telling. I appreciate this line: “The book is about whether or not the characters can successfully come back to each other when the world as they know it is ending and make the crew — and the family they’ve built — whole again.” That built family is the heart of what I love about this series, and I agree with Tor’s Renay Williams that splitting them up for this episode was a wise move; each gets to stand alone in the spotlight in a way that’s helpful to their development, and that question of the coming-together-again feels absolutely highest-stakes to the reader. The question is foreshadowed early in the book, when Naomi argues to Jim that they have to take on more crew; he is resistant because adding to the family, he fears, will loosen its bonds. Mild spoiler alert: he ends up having to take on new crew anyway, temporarily, when his goes absent. Another mild spoiler: Bobbie’s looking like a good candidate for addition to the family, which has me totally stoked for book six.

Williams has a good point (though she doesn’t state it in these terms) that the book barely passes the Bechdel test. [To review, the Bechdel test asks three things of a story: that it 1) has women in it who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than men.] While I think Corey does well with interesting, badass female characters (something I understand is often absent from sci fi), they tend to relate here only to other men. Avasarala and Draper are an exception, although they certainly don’t have an emotional relationship. I’m heartened by character development in general, though, and have high hopes for more.

Just a word here in defense of Amos, who gets accused (within the books, and by the friend who introduced me to this series) of being something like a sociopath, of having no empathy, of using Holden as a sort of external conscience. (Naomi uses a term like that, or maybe precisely that: external conscience.) While Amos sometimes struggles with seeing why something is ‘wrong,’ and finds it easy to use violence to solve problems, I think the idea that he is without conscience is unfair. We’ve seen him time and time again step up for justice: he has a serious soft spot, if not a trigger, where the idea of exploited and injured children is concerned. He can be sort of a vigilante. He doesn’t care about established law & order, certainly, but he knows what he thinks is right. There’s a moment where he decides to do what we might agree is the ‘right’ thing in this book, not because he feels it’s right (he tells us), but rather because he figures it’s what Holden would do. That would seem to support Naomi’s idea that Holden serves as auxiliary conscience. Except that Holden’s not there, and Amos figures out what Holden would do, which shows that he can guess what Holden would do, which means he can see the arguments in favor of right and wrong among the choices available to him. I say this refutes the idea that he is without conscience, so there. Amos is a weirdo (aren’t we all), with maybe a looser grasp of morality than some have (but that whole thing is relative, anyway), but I say Amos is fine. I trust him.

I’m totally hooked. I look forward to more: more tough decisions and strain on relationships, more backstories and developments, more challenges and adventures. This series has everything I need; I just need more.


Rating: 8 years.

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey (audio)

Following Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn makes book four of The Expanse.

First remark: I noticed within seconds that this audiobook is read by a different narrator than books 1-3. I guess it is one of those quiet tragedies that we often don’t notice or remark on the narrator at all if they do a good job; done right, their work kind of fades into invisibility behind a great story. (I do try and recognize narration, and sometime comment on it, but I’ve probably failed to credit some fine work. In this format, no news is probably good news.) The earlier narrator of this series, Jefferson Mays, has given me each of the characters’ voices and accents; he gave me a world that I invested in. And this new guy is messing it up.

According to this fan wiki, Erik Davies stepped in to read book 4 because Mays had a scheduling conflict, and a later audio edition was released with Mays reading again. I regret that I didn’t find this out earlier and go seek that one out! I’m sure Davies is a nice man, but he butchered this reading. It would seem reasonable to go back and listen to the earlier narrations (this is a series; fans are invested) to find how each character was played and try to follow that, but maybe the scheduling issue provides a clue: too rushed to research? Not only are characters played inconsistently with past portrayals (Avasarala loses her accent; Amos’s voice moves way down in pitch), they are played inconsistently within this one book. Alex’s famous accent (practically defines his character) comes and goes, sometimes entirely absent. Our villain Captain Murtry has the accent Alex should have, but it sort of comes on slow and ramps up as the story unfolds. He changes the pronunciation of Coordinator Chiwewe’s name partway through, then changes it back. This is sloppy work. Additionally, Davies has a sort of droning monotone style in general, and he is apt to deliver lines like… remember Horatio Caine from CSI? The way he would take off his sunglasses and put them back on again and sigh and emphasis. every. word. very. slowly? Davies does this too, and it drives me crazy.

I know I’m going on at length about a single element of this audiobook and have not even gotten into its contents yet, but this is important stuff, friends. It took me every bit of half the book to get my bearings in this new world. I’m sorry I never gave Mays credit for his earlier work.

And my narration complaints don’t help my overall impression, certainly, but I also think this was the weakest installment in the series (interesting, because my friends at Tor.com loved it). The plot shows promise – shall I get around to plot, now? Following the opening in book 3 of “the ring” as a station to access a bunch of new solar systems, one of the “new” planets has been colonized by Belter refugees from Ganymede. Only now, a ship from an Earth corporation has shown up ready to do a sanctioned scientific study, and the two groups (to put it very simply) don’t get along. Blood is shed immediately, and the OPA/Earth alliance headed by Fred Johnson and Crisjen Avasarala sends Holden and his Rocinante crew out to set things right. For political reasons, they share a thinly veiled hope that Holden will actually fuck things up.

So here come Holden and Amos down to the surface of a planet… not quite at war, but certainly very tensely at odds. (Alex and Naomi stay up in the Rocinante in orbit nearby, along with the two much larger ships held by the two factions who beat them there.) Besides the political/social complications, we face challenges like superstorms, “death slugs” (which crawl out of the ground and kill on contact), and a mysterious growth that threatens to blind every person on the planet except Holden, for whatever mysterious reason. (I was calling this bullshit – the way Holden is such a superman and is the only one immune to this blindness threat – but it turned out to be explained pretty neatly, so okay.)

Again, the plot shows promise. We get (as usual) a couple of engaging new characters, especially the brilliant, work-obsessed scientist Elvi Okoye, who has one misguided crush and then finds true love, and her sidekick Fayez. The clear villain, as I said (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) is one Captain Murtry; he is a sociopath, I think, and I enjoyed him not one bit, but I suppose we need him for the story. We also meet again a few characters from earlier books: Miller’s old partner Havelock, and Basia Merton, from Caliban’s War. The Tor writer, Stefan Raets, found these reappearances a little too unlikely, but I’m on board. I also cheered the return of Sergeant Bobbie Draper in the prologue, but she scarcely shows her face past that beginning.

I loved the new world being discovered here, the new planet, with its totally unique biology and scientific challenges; Elvi’s overwhelming enthusiasm and love for her work is contagious. The mimic lizards captured my imagination and reminded me of Oy the billy-bumbler from King’s Dark Tower series. I remember Oy so fondly, this gave me a good feeling. (Corey is good, but King is better, hands down.)

Plot, check, characters, check. But the weakness comes in in the actual writing. I felt that where we used to see subtlety we are now being banged over the head. The emphasis on Holden’s crew being like family used to be mentioned offhandedly or merely demonstrated; here we have repeated overt references, as in “these are my family. I’m not going to let them die” sort of things. One of the book’s clearest themes is this idea that it’s silly for us to fight when we should be working together… we’re facing so many dangers, why can’t we remember that we’re all people, and band together… and then finally, common enemy, working together against dangers… look, we did it, we pulled together! And I think this theme would have been perfectly evident, and impactful, without saying all those things all the time. It got really cheeseball; I think it’s insulting to the reader to spell things out so thoroughly; and most importantly, it ruins the effect. Dialog, as well, moved from clever and quippy (especially among the Rocinante‘s crew) to over-explainy. Somebody actually said “I said that so you’d know I know.” The writing felt so different to me here that I wonder if something changed in how the writing team (that goes by the name Corey) works together; it just really didn’t feel like the same authorial voice. Of course, I have no idea how much Davies’s sub-standard reading played into this impression. The way a line is delivered can very much change how it’s read.

Finally, the interludes. A new addition here, these short sections seem told from the aliens’ point of view (I am following Raets’s usage here), and they remind me thoroughly of Gertrude Stein and not in a good way.

I do appreciate (as Raets points out) the way this book integrates some of the material of those that have come before. I appreciated Alex getting a bit more backstory – I said in my last review that he was little more than an accent, and finally he gets more characterization, which is just as well since he just about lost his accent in this narration… And if we get Avasarala and Bobbie Draper back together again in the next book, I’ll be very pleased. I’m still in, is what I’m saying, but please let’s get back to Jefferson Mays’s narration and back on track. C’mon, team…


Rating: 6 blue fireflies.

Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey (audio)

His words were full of hope and threat. Like the stars.

Following Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate makes book three of The Expanse.

Thank goodness, after that angry-making book I reviewed for you the other day, that this one was so lovely. I think I like each of these better than the one before. Corey (actually a pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, but I shall treat “him” as one) keeps introducing new characters to play as central in each book, alongside our consistent leads Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex, and these new additions continue to amaze me. Also, so many of them are badass strong women, which makes me feel good.

In this edition, we meet Clarissa Mao, Carlos “Bull” de Baca, and Pastor Anna Volovodov, among others. Clarissa (aka Claire, aka Melba) is initially a villain, but she will undergo several upheavals over the course of the story (as her multiple names hint). I love a complication. Pastor Anna is more strictly a positive figure – if anything, too positive, a little saccharine in her portrayal; but she also frustrated me for some other reasons, giving her as well the complications I appreciate. Bull was more closely a “typical” (I mean this in the best way) troubled police-detective-type, à la Harry Bosch or Dave Robicheaux; and he gets an ending that I wouldn’t call deserved, but that feels appropriate. We get as well a self-important, probably corrupt major religious leader to whom Anna remains sympathetic, but I can’t say the same for myself. Also Anna’s sidekick (if you will), an unrepentant rich lady loyal to her friends. Even though the book’s plot threatens the end of humankind, the characters were tons of fun.

I’ll go light on summary as usual, because sci fi, whew. This installment of The Expanse sees all three major politic powers – Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) – congregate near what they’re calling the Ring, the manifestation of that alien beast thing that formed on Venus in previous books. Our villain sets up an act of terrorism and frames Holden for it; she wants him both discredited and killed. Holden enters the Ring itself to avoid his attackers, where he encounters the ghost (or what the heck is it?) of Miller, who’s been dead (we’re pretty sure) since book one, but who Holden has been regularly conversing with. From here, the basic idea is that the Ring has the ability to destroy all of humanity – not only the many ships who are loitering near the Ring, but everybody back home well – and our usual heroes have to stop it. The factions basically battling to get humanity destroyed don’t do so knowingly, but possess various motivations having to do with power-hunger, mental illness, misguided rage, a sort of hero-sacrifice-complex, and more. I appreciate that we get the usual Holden-Naomi-Amos-Alex team (yay, go team!) as well as a few new hero figures, including an unlikely surprise. I found the “surprise” element both somewhat predictable and also poetic; I’m not sure that makes much sense but it’s how I felt.

I turn again to Tor.com, whose brief reflections on this book (and its adaptability for screen) I find wise. Their writer Liz Bourke calls Anna “the emotional (even, dare I say it, spiritual) centre of this part of the narrative arc. Anna knows how to forgive. Anna cares about people. And Anna can look out into the vast depths of the unknowable, and asks, ‘But what does it mean?’ not in fear or horror, but in wonder and hope.” Well put: she’s a new element, I think, in this world where (as Amos says to Anna) “everybody in this room except maybe you and the captain has a flexible sense of morality.” Bourke is not wrong in calling Holden “bland” (though I love him still), but Anna is a little less so.

Naomi’s character development has maybe slowed down a little in this book, but I still love her, and all the other strong women (I see you, Sam). I’m a little anxious to get back to developing our central four-person team: we didn’t spend much time with just the four of them together in this book, and I’m realizing that we know almost nothing about Alex (he’s hardly more than an accent). But Amos – I think I’m ready to admit I have a crush on Amos. He’s like an even more bad-boy Jack Reacher.

Long story short, my devotion to this series continues to strengthen. See you in book four.


Rating: 8 engineers.

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (audio)

I raced through book two of this series (book one here). Boy, that last one was a long review, wasn’t it? I’ll try and be more brief this time. To start with: I’m definitely hooked on The Expanse.

Caliban’s War keeps Holden and his deeply likeable crew at its center, while Detective Miller is nearly absent, having flown off to Venus with the protomolecule version of Julie Mao. Tor.com’s article on this volume (which, again, I found an excellent guide) says that “Holden is the through line, but only in a way that centers things for the reader. He’s really a vehicle for everyone else,” which I think is nicely put. A few new characters enter the spotlight. Prax, or Dr. Praxidike Meng, whose daughter has been kidnapped, is a meek botanist big on brains and short on street smarts. I occasionally found him maddening, but he makes an interesting contribution to the little family that is Holden’s crew. He also, through the crisis of his missing child and her link to the protomolecule, provides the novel its central one-off storyline. Chrisjen Avasarala is a UN (Earth) politician, and a delightfully nuanced character with all the backstory required to make her interesting and believable; she could carry a whole book on her own. And Sergeant Bobbie Draper of Mars is like a female Jack Reacher: huge, badass, clever and loveable (as long as she’s on your side). Avasarala recruits Bobbie, and the two of them work together to try and avert disaster in the tenuous cold war between Earth, Mars and the Outer Belt following the events of book one.

Whew.

Although Wikipedia calls Holden, Prax, Avasarala, and Bobbie the four main characters of this book, I think that sells Holden’s crew short. His love affair with Naomi is progressing, with its issues. Alex is offscreen for part of the story, and receives somewhat less character development, but Amos is coming right along. The friend who turned me on to this series calls him a psychopath, but I think that’s not the least bit fair. He cries for children in danger. I love Amos. And the family togetherness of the crew of the Rocinante (Holden named it) is a sweet point – approaching saccharine, actually, but I seem to have a high tolerance for that, once I’ve bought in. And I’ve definitely bought in here.

My endorsement of this series continues. It’s sci fi for people who care more about people than the science. It’s right up my alley, action-packed but also all about character development and human conflict and feelings. On to the next one.


Rating: 8 children.
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