Book review: 'Tiamat's Wrath,' the eighth book in 'The Expanse' series
"Tiamat's Wrath (The Expanse, Book Eight)" by James S.A. Corey (Orbit, 544 pages, in stores)
Over the past few years, James Holden, Bobbie Draper, Naomi Nagata, Chrisjen Avasarala, Alex Kamal and Amos Burton have become important people in my life.
It doesn't matter that they're not real.
Several years ago, before I started reading for a living, I picked up a copy of James S.A. Corey's thick trade paperback novel, "Leviathan Awakes," and couldn't set it aside. I read it like I was hungry for it, like it was one of the best meals I'd ever had. When I was done, I wanted seconds — but there wasn't a sequel yet. I had to wait.
"Leviathan Awakes" introduced me to all (or most) of the characters mentioned above. The book was a vast, sprawling space opera set within a practical, believable version of the future. Part action thriller, part political drama and all science fiction, the book focused on a small crew of ice miners who survived an attack by a stealth spacecraft out in the asteroid belt. Everything else grew from there.
I got the second book in the series for Christmas years ago, but by then I didn't have time to read it. A third book came out. A fourth. If the book series hadn't been turned into a cable television series called "The Expanse," I might've forgotten about it. The TV show is brilliant, however, and the casting is all but perfect. Watching it was a pleasure, and not at all a guilty one. I've praised in on every social media network that I know how to use; I've announced my belief that it is the best science fiction program ever to air on television — better than any version of "Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica" and "The X-Files," among others.
And then December 2018 rolled around.
Doing this job, I don't always get to read books that appeal to me. I hate-read some novels, wade through dense nonfiction, try to keep the book reviews broad-ranging and sometimes take whatever book publishers offer to me. But when Christmas vacation came along, I decided to catch up on "The Expanse" book series.
Since the TV show had already covered the action in the first three books, I started with the fourth novel, "Cibola Burn." Frankly it's the weakest of the novels, but it still hurried me along to books five, six and seven. "Tiamat's Wrath," which came out in late March, wasn't ready for me yet, so I went back and read books two and three. This occupied much of my free time. I wore earbuds or headphones, listened to soft piano music and sped through the books until I remembered I was reading them for enjoyment. I could take a little time with them.
Along the way I rewatched the first three seasons of the show repeatedly. I've got a bit of an obsessive personality. The great thing is how closely the show follows the books. Sure, there are some differences, but they're done simply to streamline things that are more complex in the novels. The characters in the show are absolute replicas of those in the books. (Wes Chatham's portrayal of likeable psychopath Amos is particularly on point, as is Shohreh Aghdashloo's take on politician Avasarala.) The program was canceled by SyFy but was rescued by Amazon; a fourth season has been ordered, but with, alas, fewer episodes; reportedly Amazon owner Jeff Bezos is a big fan.
Which brings us to "Tiamat's Wrath."
I'm not going to lie to you. I haven't finished this novel yet. I'm reading it slowly because I don't know if there'll be another novel in the series or when it will come out. I'm savoring this one. But what I can tell you is that reading it is like coming home. There are some empty spots at the kitchen table; one prominent character has died, and another is missing. The tight-knit crew of the Roncinante are scattered in different directions, and those who can still interact with the others can't do it close up or for very long.
I don't want to ruin the series' arc for you, but here's what I can tell you in brief.
The ice miners we meet in the first novel include Holden, Amos, Alex and Naomi. They're the heart of these books, along with Martian marine Draper. Humanity is spread across the solar system. Earth, the home world, is the most prominent power. Mars, which humans are slowly terraforming while living under domes, produces the toughest soldiers in the system. And the asteroid belt is filled with humans who have grown up in weak gravity, their limbs and heads becoming overlong, their muscles too weak to function in Earth's gravity. Nothing about the scenario seems likely to change.
But then a catalyst is tossed into the mix. A corporation has discovered an alien relic, a "protomolecule" that was sent into the system millions of years ago to alter or jumpstart life among our planets. The company is trying to build super-soldiers out of it, but the substance is something far beyond human understanding and seems possessed of its own will and intentions. Everything goes wrong, and while smart people want to destroy the protomolecule entirely, the United Nations (which leads Earth), the Martians and the Belters all want a piece of it — and they get more than they can handle.
Holden and company keep finding themselves in the midst of power struggles. They've taken over a Martian warship, the Roncinante, and are sort of like Switzerland, tied to every government but not indentured to any of them.
The books head off in a completely different direction when the protomolecule opens up a gate system in space, sort of like a bunch of wormholes, allowing humans to explore more than 1,000 new solar systems spread across the galaxy. One scary thing is that the aliens who made the protomolecule and sent it out to seed the universe seem to have died out, killed off by something even more powerful than themselves. Another scary thing is the human tendency toward authoritarian rulers and tyrannical regimes.
Over the course of the story, Holden and his friends grow older. It's uncomfortable seeing them bend their principles and lose their vitality, but it makes them all the more real.
Because they are aging, it's hard to imagine that the series will continue much longer. That's a shame. I tend to compare all science fiction to Frank Herbert's masterful "Dune" (and the first couple of sequels to it). The themes in "The Expanse" are similar to those in "Dune," but the stories are more enjoyable to read. Herbert's books follow a messianic figure's rise to power and then disillusionment with it; the book is dense but insightful, perhaps prophetic, and for that reason it will always stand above its obvious genre. But it's also all about emperors and dukes and barons, and how fighters motivated by religion can destroy the thrones of power.
Corey's books aren't solely about leaders, religious or otherwise. They're about people who must deal with the consequences of those who rule; that makes it easier for normal folks like me to understand.