3 Stars,  5 Stars,  Book Reviews

The Expanse by James S.A. Corey: Re-reading Books 1 to 4

I’ve just finished No.4, which I enjoyed more on my second read than I did the first time!

I love a good science-fiction story! I get very excited when I find new well made and well written sci-fi on TV, or in movies, or videogames. My journey to discovering The Expanse books was through the TV series. As also happened with Game of Thrones, I watched the first seasons of the show and I was obsessed. I had to start reading the books to get more, I couldn’t wait!

While Game of Thrones books vs TV series was an increasingly rocky path for me (lets just pretend the TV series never happened), I’ve had a much easier time with The Expanse. The TV series is different enough that they can exist as two separate stories in my head, and the changes that they make do make sense (especially when you think about budgets!).

I have loved The Expanse books, but I’ve not actually completed the series yet – I only ever got to book 6 the first time around – but I’ve enjoyed every one in the series. Even the ones I’ve liked less are still solid sci-fi books.

I persuaded my partner – who is an avid Fantasy reader, but less so with Sci-Fi – to give them a try (he also has a few friends who love it too!). I needed to refresh myself on the series before I try to finish it (now the final book 9 is out) so we decided it would be fun to try to read them at the same time!

We started this in July 2022, which was before I was really tracking my reading on this blog, so I’m going to catch up thoughts on the first 3 books before I dive into number 4!

Skip to the one you care about:

  1. Leviathan Wakes
  2. Caliban’s War
  3. Abaddon’s Gate
  4. Cibola Burn

Leviathan Wakes (Book 1) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5 Stars

Read in August 2017 & July 2022

This is such a great start to a new series, and it introduces the world and the tense political situation between the three human factions which will drive the tensions for most of the series. We have the humans who grew up on Earth (ruled by a successfully unified United Nations), the militaristic society of Martians (who must live in domes on Mars as a century-long terraforming project is still underway), and the Belters (inhabitants of the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter) who are the oppressed working class.

The Belters have lived on ships and stations with low gravity for generations, which means they have altered physiology, their own language and culture. The Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) is their labour union turned socio-political movement, but contains many splinter groups with differing ideologies and extremism.

There is always tension between Earth, Mars and the OPA, and within the OPA itself.

This is a world that feels lived in. It is on the harder end of science-fiction which means the details feel plausible, evident is the fact that living in space is extremely dangerous. Space travel is also uncomfortable and often involves cocktails of drugs to keep people healthy and sane. And it is slow, even at high thrust it takes a lot of time to get anywhere!

In the first book, five members of the Canterbury ice hauler respond to a distress signal on a spooky abandoned ship. Before they can return they witness the Canterbury destroyed by an unknown ship they discover to be Martian. The officer in charge of the “away mission,” James ‘Jim’ Holden, decides to broadcast a message to the galaxy implicating Mars in destroying their ship. This threatens to bring the solar system to civil war and drags the crew into the centre of a dangerous conspiracy.

Meanwhile, on the Eros space station in the Belt, the depressed, alcoholic Detective Miller is assigned a case to track down the missing daughter of a powerful Luna family – Julie Mao. Rising tensions and riots following Holden’s broadcast, and Miller’s increasing obsession with Julie pull him into the same conspiracy.

The POV switches between Holden and Miller, I enjoyed how Holden’s idealistic righteousness contrasted with Millers weary cynicism, and I loved it when they finally met. We also get to know, through Holden, his remaining crew members – Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal and Amos Burton. They all distinct and believable characters, who you can feel have whole story behind how they ended up on the Canterbury in the first place. By the end of the book they have formed a cohesive crew.

Leviathan Wakes is a lot of fun to read, its complex and twisty and feels like it barely scratches the surface of what this world has to offer.

Caliban’s War (Book 2) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5 Stars

Read in September 2017 & August 2022

I loved the second book even more than the first. This is in large part because of the introduction of two of my favourite POVs, who are both very welcome as female characters after the very male first book!

We get Bobbi Draper, a power armour wearing specialist Martian marine who witnesses her platoon be torn apart by a monster on Ganymede, and only narrowly survives herself. This incident threatens once again to break the fragile peace between Earth and Mars, as everybody is suspicious over where the monster came from.

Bobbi is recruited by high-level UN politician Chrisjen Avasarala to help her prevent the outbreak of war and investigate her concerns over the strange activity on the surface of Venus (which the protomolecule infested Eros crashed into in book 1). The two uncover an unsettling conspiracy at work between members of the government and Luna businessman Jules-Pierre Mao (Julie’s father).

Chrisjen is in her seventies, takes zero shit, speaks her mind and is scarily adept at political manoeuvrings. Her diminutive appears as an “Indian grandmother” coupled with her foul language is often disarming. Her chapters are always a fun read!

Bobbi on the other hand tends to be more serious and after a life in the military, her initial instincts are to play by the rules. I loved that these two women are a fantastic contrast in both physical appearance (Bobbi is over 6ft 5 and muscular, Chrisjen is around 5ft) and personality.

Another new POV is Prax Meng, the Chief Botanist on Ganymede’s soy farm project. He is the divorced single father to four-year-old daughter Mei who suffers from an autoimmune disease. When one of the giant mirrors used to direct the sun onto the greenhouses collapses chaos ensues, Prax escapes and goes to find his daughter in kindergarten. He discovers she was kidnapped by someone posing as her mother, he spends the following weeks desperately looking for Mei until he encounters Holden and persuades him to help find her. I did like Prax, and believed his devastation and desperation in his search for Mei.

Of course we also have the crew of the Rocinante, and again we have Holden as our POV. They begin the novel doing basic free lance work hunting down pirates before they are asked to check out the crisis on Ganymede for the OPA. When Holden agrees to help Prax they find themselves at the centre of another conspiracy involving the protomolecule.

I loved this book for the new characters but also because it really begins to ramp up the danger with the protomolecule, and stupid humans messing around with things they don’t understand, for profit and power. It also has some really great action scenes, I am not normally an action fan but there were times in this I was gripped!

My criticisms of this one are that the sexualisation of Naomi and Bobbi was getting a little much. Even if this does occur from the male POV its started to become noticeable for me. Bobbi might be 6ft5 and muscular, but it seemed important that we also know she is super hot. The only other female character of note we meet is Sam the engineer who repairs their ship in dry dock, and she’s also remarked on as being very cute (like a pixie). Of course Chrisjen escapes this because she is in her seventies!

It is as shame because otherwise the female characters are well written! (Especially for this genre!)

Abaddon’s Gate (Book 3) ⭐⭐⭐ 3/5 Stars

Read in September 2017 & April 2023

A massive gate has opened up that leads to a vast starless space, and a flotilla of scientists and the military has set out to investigate and determine if this is an opportunity or a threat. Of course, this includes Holden and the crew of the Rocinante – if reluctantly.

There are number of new characters for this book, and honestly I was not a fan of all of them and I really missed Chrisjen and Bobbi who are absent from this book.

We have pastor Anna as part of a special civilian advisory group aboard the UNN Thomas Prince. I understand why they’d include a more spiritual, “normal” character like this – one who is usually Earth-bound – to give a different perspective on the world but I did find her quite tiresome. She’s fine, she has strength and tenacity to be admired but I was never thrilled by her chapters.

Clarissa Mao aka Melba is the daughter of Jules Pierre-Mao and the youngest sister of Julie Mao. She blames Holden for destroying her father and her family name, and is on an insane revenge plot to destroy his reputation and legacy. She has illegal implants that give heightened combat skills, and has faked her way onto the crew of the Cerisier as an engineer as it heads out to the gate.

The first time I read this I was annoyed and frustrated by this character – she is quite over the top and unhinged – but on my second reading, I didn’t mind her so much. Perhaps because I knew how things would turn out in later books, I found it easier to sympathise with her.

Then we have Carlos c de Baba aka “Bull” who is an Earther member of the OPA and current chief security officer on the Behemoth. Bull has to deal with the internal politics of the Behemoth – even with the OPA there are always power struggles, and being from Earth he does not have the respect of all the Belter crew. I think with Bull I just really didn’t care that much about the going on in the Behemoth until everything hit the fan in the last third of the novel, so I did find myself skim-reading a lot of these earlier chapters.

My overall issue with this book is that the first two thirds felt so slow. It is a lot of set up before the story picks up momentum. I found it difficult to have 3 brand new POV characters which meant only 1/3ish of this novel was with the Rocinante crew.

Cibola Burns (Book 4) ⭐⭐⭐ 3/5 Stars

Read in October 2017 & December 2023

Re-reading this one was interesting. With the previous three I found my opinions hadn’t changed to much, but this was I markedly felt like I enjoyed more and I even bumped up my rating from 2 stars to 3 stars.

The fourth book deals with petty squabbles over the claim to humanity’s first colony on the new frontier beyond the Ring Gate – and all the lithium it contains. A ship of refugees from Ganymede made a run through one of the opened ring gates and became the first settlers on the planet they christened Ilus, intending to mine the planet for its lithium and start a new life. The problem is that the UN had promised the rights to what they call “New Terra” to the Royal Charter Energy (RCE) company.

A faction within the colonists conspired to blow up the landing pad to prevent the RCE shuttle from landing to behind their mining operation. This doesn’t go quite to plan when the shuttle arrives early and is caught in the explosion, killing some of its grew and the new Governor.

Holden is sent out to mediate the situation by Chrisjen Avasarala, as a supposedly neutral party between the OPA and the UN. New Terra/Ilus is going to serve as the template for what is to come with the other new worlds, so she is hoping to backchannel the political situation before it escalates. Holden does seem an odd choice for this – something my partner could not get past! – but the novel does know this, and I think it is explained by the end.

There are a lot of incredibly frustrating characters in this one! It has much greater atmosphere of tension and threat than the other books, and it is a lot more claustrophobic. They are so far away from their home system that any aid would be months to years away, and even messages back home take hours to deliver. It takes the Rocinante over 70 days to get their from their position of already being by the ring gate.

The prologue teased me with Bobbi but she never appears again! Instead we get Holden and another three new POV characters. This is a very Holden heavy book, and he and Amos are separate from Alex and Naomi for all the action.

For off we get Basia Merton, a Belter welder from Ganymede. He was briefly in Caliban’s War, he was friends with Prax and abandoned his search for his kidnapped son Katoa when he fled with the rest of his family. Now we know where they went! Basia is responsible for the explosion at the landing pad that opens the novel, and he wrestles with his guilt and the consequences for his actions. I do like this character, and he felt like a normal guy who got in too deep before he realised what was happening.

On the RCE side we have Elvi Okoye, a biologist from Earth there for scientific exploration. She survives the initial shuttle crash, and makes it down to the surface. I struggled with this character! On the one hand I appreciated her scientific perspective, and her voice pointing out the madness in settling on a brand new alien world without any environmental protections. On the other I found her crush on Holden incredibly irritating! And the fact that it turned out all she needed to do was have sex with someone (anyone) to cure her of it. Sure.

Elvi just did not ring true to me. She felt like a bit of a cartoon character.

Dmitri Havelock is another return from a previous books. He was Miller’s Earther partner on Eros, whom he persuaded to leave before the shit really hit the fan. Now he is the acting Chief of Security on the Edward Israel. He provides the perspective of those who are in orbit, and teals with the rising tensions between the Earther and Belter crew aboard, and the increasingly unhinged requests of actual Chief of Security Alophus Murty from the surface. I liked Havelock. He is a company man, but eventually his level head wins out.

Which brings me to Murty, we don’t get a POV this guy but his presence is heavy in this book. He almost immediately goes mad with power after he sees the opportunity in this situation. The acts of the terrorist faction in the Resistance have given him a free pass abuse (and murder) people under the banner of RCE’s rights to the planet. He scared me, and I did wish Holden would let Amos shoot right away! But he also is very one dimensional. Having recently replayed The Outer Worlds, he would have fit right in to that game (to be honest the whole plot of this book reminds me of it!).

The plot is a little all over the place. Once you think you have a handle on it a new threat is introduced! The best of it happens right towards the end when we did get to learn some more about the alien artefacts, but it is a bit of a slog to get to that point.

Like all the characters, I was very relieved when we got to board the Rocinante and leave this planet!

I remember that I did enjoy the next book, so I’m looking forward to it! Unfortunately, because I’m buddy reading I have to wait for my partner to be ready to start it.

Have you read any of these books? Which one is your favourite?

If you have enjoyed the TV series on Amazon Prime, I highly recommend reading them!

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