Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey
After reading the first two books in James S. A. Corey’s EXPANSE series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, I came to book three, Abaddon’s Gate, with some pretty solid expectations. How did Corey (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) do, based on strengths I highlighted in reviews of the first two books?
- fluid prose: check
- likable characters: check
- mostly strong characterization: check
- humor that runs throughout: check
- a nice balance of shoot-em-up action, political fighting, and personal conflicts: check, check, and check
- a quick pace that had me knock of a 500+ page book in a single setting: check
- a feel (in a good way) of old-time sci-fi along the likes of Heinlein or Asimov: check
- a ratcheting up of tension and stakes: check and check
- a real sense of risk thanks to not all the characters making it to the end? check
- an ending with both some resolution and an opening up that will leave you waiting for the next one? Check and damn-you-check
These guys are so consistent, I could probably already review book four by just cutting and pasting the above and changing the title. (Hmmm, note to self… )
Abaddon’s Gate picks up a few months after the events of Caliban’s War (and you’ll definitely want to read these in order) with the same set of characters — Captain Jim Holden and his crew: Naomi, Alex, and Amos. Flush with cash after a series of freelance space jobs, they’ve upgraded both their ship — the Rocinante — and their lives. But when the Martian government starts legal proceedings to reclaim the Rocinante, Holden and his people take the last job in the universe they wanted: escorting a media crew to the huge mysterious ring structure assembled out near Uranus by the alien protomolecule from Caliban’s War. The same protomolecule that killed a former detective named Miller who now keeps appearing to Holden to make incomprehensible but vaguely ominous pronouncements. Did I mention you’ll want to read these in order?
Holden’s ship isn’t the only one heading out to investigate the Ring. Both Mars and Earth, fresh off their recent quick little war, have sent out a fleet of military ships. Accompanying the Earth fleet is a supply ship that includes artists and religious leaders. Meanwhile, the Outer Planets Association, not wanting to be left out of the Great Game, is sending the Behemoth — its first (barely running) battleship: a huge repurposed-on-the-fly generation ship originally meant for Mormons planning a centuries-long trip to the stars. Aboard these ships are several new point-of-view characters, including Pastor Anna, who wants to know what the appearance of the Ring and the proof of alien life means for humanity’s vision of religion and god; Bull, the chief of security on the Behemoth; and Melba, a bent-on-revenge terrorist whose sister was killed by the protomolecule and whose family was destroyed by Holden’s actions in Caliban’s War (see earlier comment re reading books in order).
What happens at the Ring once all these players converge will affect not only these individual characters, but also all of humanity. And not in any abstract, indirect, or metaphorical sense either. Along the way, readers will encounter space battles, hand-to-hand combat, mutinies, terrible acts of terrorism, wrenching deaths, philosophical discussions regarding faith, redemption, and forgiveness; fart jokes (OK, one), an epic moment of mind-blowing grandeur and scale; lots of humor (not involving farts), acts of cowardice, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement; acts of compassion, empathy, bravery, and self-sacrifice. All dealt out smoothly and confidently, with barely an issue to complain about.
Characterization, as mentioned, is mostly excellent. The characters we’ve come to know show us different aspects and continue to grow either as individuals or as part of an integrated whole: as a crew, as a romantic relationship, as friends. The new characters nicely balance out Holden and his crew (who are sort of the old-style, too-good to be true, type characters). Bull somewhat replaces Miller’s more hard-bitten style, while Pastor Anna offers up a slower-paced, more reflective, more intellectual and spiritual aspect. Melba, meanwhile, gives us both a villain and, as the book continues, a deeply conflicting character. I won’t say more so as not to spoil things, but I will say the authors take a real risk with her as a character and I’m actually still mulling over what I think about her storyline. It’s discomfiting, at the least, and thus brings a strong edge to the reading experience.
The plot zips along at a greatly controlled pace: fast and exhilarating much of the time, but willing to slow down when necessary. The tension builds throughout and suspense is often taut as characters move from one near-disaster (or just disaster) to another. The anxiety is further heightened by what is constantly haunting everyone in the background: both the knowledge of the just-ended war among the three groups and the lack of knowledge regarding this huge alien structure staring them all in the face.
My complaints, as noted, were few. At the end, maybe the last 50-75 pages or so, there was a bit too much of smart people not doing smart things so as to allow for certain plot points. And one or two of the characters, particularly the captain of the Behemoth, were not as fully individualized as the other characters. Of the two, the former bothered me much more and did pull me out of the novel now and then in one of those “Now why would they have done that” or “Why wouldn’t they just…” kind of moments.
Save for those two issues, really restricted to a small portion of the novel, Abaddon’s Gate was a great ride throughout and a worthy follow-up to the first two books. And as with each of those, while it does give a nice sense of closure to many questions that have arisen to this point, it also opens up the story potential going forward. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next one. Heck, I might as well read it; I’ve already reviewed it, right?
Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in THE EXPANSE series. The mystery of the protomolecule has given birth to a bigger mystery, a vast ring floating in space near Uranus. All three in-system governments, Earth’s United Nations, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance, have sent ships to monitor this phenomenon. It’s the absolute last place James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, wants to end up, especially since the apparition of dead detective Miller keeps hinting that he has to go there. James has definite plans to stay as far away from the ring as possible, so of course the universe arranges things so that he is sent there, along with a documentary film crew.
In Abaddon’s Gate we get a sense for the first time of the possible motivations of the ancient exo-sapients who flung the protomolecule into our system. Most of the story, though, is about humans and various reactions to the unknown. New characters include Bull, an OPA loyalist who is trying to make the best of a bad situation, as he is third in command with a Belter captain who is an insecure, over-controlling martinet, and pastor Anna Volovodov, a Methodist minister who approaches her work with humility and the ring with awe and wonder. Her philosophy contrasts with other people sent on this mission, wealthy socialites and princes of the (various) churches. The most intriguing new character for me was Melba Koh. Melba blames Holden for many things in her life and she has planned an intricate, violent revenge. Melba is an interesting and disturbing character. I was startled to find myself feeling sympathy for her on more than one occasion. While the story does not let her off the hook, we do see her fumbling her way back to grace as the book continues.
Of all of the new characters I found Anna the most accessible. Except for brief periods where she forgets everything about herself and becomes an action hero, Anna prevails by doing what she does best. In a conversation with the plutocratic Tilly with whom she has, astonishingly, made friends, Anna talks about all the political jockeying around the ring, and wonders why no one else wonders “what it means.” Anna’s role, as a shepherd of God, is to find and bring meaning, and she does that here even when it means risking her life. She is not at her most compelling to me when she is saving people in an EVA suit, but rather when she is listening to Melba, reaching out to the ship’s crew to offer a service or broadcasting a message of hope.
Dead Detective Miller is also present in this book. I’ve liked Dead Detective Miller since back when he was only Detective Miller, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
Along with interesting characters the book brings epic battles, mostly in the passages of various ships; and a first look at an alien space station.
Abaddon’s Gate makes a pivot in the series, which until now has been centered in our own solar system. At the end of this book, humanity is poised to go interstellar. I’m sure you’ll join me in wondering, “What could possibly go wrong?”