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.

Maximum Shelf: The Whisper Man by Alex North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 17, 2019.


Alex North’s The Whisper Man is an exemplary thriller, offering plenty of suspense, things that go bump in the night and complex psychological maneuverings that may–or may not–explain the good and the bad that is shared by fathers and sons.

As the novel opens, off-duty Detective Inspector Pete Willis wearily heads out to help search for a missing six-year-old boy. He doesn’t want to think about the similarities between this case and an old one that he still can’t forget. At the same time, Tom Kennedy, a successful novelist and deeply bereaved widower, is struggling to connect with his young son, Jake. A gifted but troubled child, Jake knows more about the world around him than seems natural. He tries to be good, quietly drawing by himself, but his pictures profoundly disturb Tom.

Detective Inspector Amanda Beck–a generation younger than Pete–wrestles with the case of the missing child, which does indeed turn out to be linked to the case that haunts the older detective. The serial killer, dubbed by the press “the Whisper Man,” appears to have returned, although he’s been in prison some 20 years; Pete was never able to pin down for certain whether there had been an accomplice. And now, there’s another child-snatcher whispering to his victims before he takes them. Kids repeat the rhyme on school playgrounds: “If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken. If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home….”

Tom and Jake have just relocated to a new village to start over, after the loss of Jake’s mother. But it seems they’ve moved into a maelstrom of evil, like something out of one of Jake’s drawings. The tension and the action ratchet up as the distant past becomes very present again.

The Whisper Man is told from a number of different perspectives, chapter by chapter–Tom, Jake, Pete and the Whisper Man himself. They are occasionally joined by others, including up-and-coming DI Amanda Beck, who looks to Pete as a mentor; but the story centers on Jake, his father and their connection to the bad guy. Tom’s perspective is the only one written in first person, giving him a compelling narrator’s authority– appropriate, as he is the novelist of the bunch. These differing voices exhibit North’s adeptness with character, including the precocious child’s view of the world in Jake’s chapters. They also give the reader a chance to sleuth alongside the professionals. But North gives nothing away: even the most mystery-savvy reader will be gasping and page-turning to the very end.

North’s characters are multi-layered, deeply relatable while keenly entertaining as they reveal themselves. Pete struggles with alcoholism in a day-to-day battle that is both fraught and poignantly banal. A young man whose father didn’t love him focuses on the meaning of a meal prepared with or without care. One of Tom’s daily challenges involves taking Jake to school, where he waits for his son to look back over his shoulder or not, and where he worries about fitting in with the other parents (one of whom will become a significant side character). Each chapter in its turn, and each featured character, is so absorbing that the reader wishes to follow this lead and then that one–but the momentum of the plot is relentless. Characters that the reader has invested in are in danger, and the pages fly by. At nearly 400 pages, The Whisper Man is nonetheless a quick-reading, fast-paced novel.

The psychology is complex. There’s more than one bad guy, blurring into one another in the eyes of frustrated investigators Willis and Beck. And if The Whisper Man has a hero, or heroes, they are imperfect, each occasionally thinking themself the villain. Whether it surfaces as evil or good intentions, there is a strong theme throughout of the connections between fathers and sons: what is passed down, and what role free will has to play.

In the end, The Whisper Man has all the hallmarks of a great murder-mystery thriller: suspense, the battle between good and evil, surprise twists and turns, fresh takes on classic detective characters and sympathetic civilians. But more than that, North offers nuance and questions about human agency. For all the darkness in this novel about serial killers and trauma, there is a sweet strain of filial love and creativity, and even a note of redemption.


Rating: 8 circles.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

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.

Galley Love of the Week: The Whisper Man by Alex North

Be among the first to read The Whisper Man by Alex North, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Alex North’s The Whisper Man will leave readers every bit as sleepless and spooked as is young Jake Kennedy, a boy who knows too much about the world around him, a world where a killer who’s been locked up for 20 years now has a copycat. In the alternating perspectives of precocious Jake, his novelist father, a grizzled police detective, an ambitious younger detective and others, this thriller conveys both simple terror and complex psychological twists. Ryan Doherty, executive editor at Celadon, notes, “What makes this one special is the incredible father-son relationship at its core–a relationship that transcends the genre and gives the novel a true beating heart.”

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. This edition ran here.

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.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (audio)

This was a definite departure from my usual reading, in part because it was listening and not reading. Two life changes contribute: one, that I live in a van now, and do a fair amount of driving, therefore time to listen. And two, I graduated! and have far fewer reading commitments, so I thought I might have brain-room for audiobooks again. Yay!

This was also a genre departure. A friend set me up with The Expanse series on audio, highly recommended. He calls these books “hard-boiled film noir in space,” which all rings true, although I would have said sci fi as a first-level categorization.

I did a little research and reading around as I wrote this review, which is fairly unusual, but I’m so unfamiliar with the genre that I felt at a loss. I am glad I poked around like I did. I learned, in this article from Tor.com, about the “space western” sub-genre, which made instant sense for Leviathan Wakes even before I read the full description of that genre distinction. On the other hand, it was interesting to note in that article that its author found Miller a trying character and was always anxious to get back to Holden. While I can’t say the opposite – I certainly found Holden compelling – I did feel Miller was sympathetic and genuine. Some people really are that depressed, depressing, and self-sabotaging. Or maybe it’s just that I love noir mysteries, with their disturbed PIs.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Leviathan Wakes takes place in a future in which humans have colonized Mars and a good chunk of the solar system. The major political players in this world are Earth and Mars, with an outer asteroid belt roiling and muttering rebellion under the name OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), which has been labelled a terrorist organization by the major powers. In this setting, we have a handful of protagonists, chiefly two men: James Holden, Earthborn captain of a commercial ship and former officer in the United Nations Navy, and Joe Miller, a rundown Beltborn detective and classic noir figure (his wife left him, he drinks too much, he’s dysfunctional but still has a good heart). There’s also Holden’s crew, Naomi, Amos, and Alex; and Julie Mao, rich girl turned OPA fighter, who we meet only briefly at the beginning of the book. She becomes a missing person and Miller is assigned (by nontraditional means) to find her. He becomes obsessed.

This is a hard plot to summarize because a lot happens (the paperback is some 600 pages, the audiobook 21 hours). If you want more, the Wikipedia page does a pretty good job of summary, but beware spoilers there. I’ll turn to another’s words again: Aidan Moher, the writer at Tor.com, praises this book “for being open and approachable for anyone with even a remote interest in science fiction, but specifically for those who are intimidated by the hard science that often forms the backbone Space Opera. It focuses instead on the intricacies of the human machine — relationships, anxieties, dreams, loss, redemption, acceptance.” Well put, and explains why I was able to enter so easily into this world. Human relationships, etc., are definitely my main interest in literature.

I had a great time listening to this one. I felt pulled in by the momentum of both character development and plot; it stayed entertaining always. There were a few elements I let slide by me: the tech (and anything I missed was not a problem), and also the lovely patois spoken by Belters, which mixes a few languages (English, Spanish, Hindi, and more: there’s a great page here). That pidgin language offered great color and I felt like I understood enough to get along. (I’m often a fan of foreign languages used in English writings, where context clues or cognates give me enough to get by, and I’m generally able to trust the author that what I miss is unnecessary to my understanding of the larger work.) In other words, I thoroughly agree with Moher: this was an easily accessible sci fi novel that I loved for its human elements. Despite being a longish book, pacing was snappy, and the alternating viewpoints of Holden and Miller kept things lively as well. I am absolutely looking forward to the next book in the series, which is Caliban’s War. Stand by: I’m going to switch gears in a big way and listen to some Stegner next, and then back to the old space western. My friend who has given me the series tells me this one will be “more horror and psych thriller,” with which I am right on board.

Thanks for the hook-up, Paul.


Rating: 8 vomit zombies.
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