The Short Version: A year after the events of Leviathan Wakes, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have become hired guns for the OPA. But when a conflict erupts on Ganymede and brings Earth and Mars to the brink of war (again), one missing little girl may hold answers – and Holden & his crew (as well as a Martian solider and a UN diplomat) are on the case. Meanwhile, something is happening on Venus…
The Review: It’s been a long time since I’ve been so invested in a space series. I’m not sure if its the lessons of world-building gleaned from George R. R. Martin, the strict-er adherence to & interest in hard science that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have helped encourage over the last decade, or just a really smart idea – but James S. A. Corey has built something absolutely incredible in this future Solar System. And now they’re trying to blow it all up.
There are some structural similarities to the first novel here, especially in the continuing tensions between Earth and Mars as well as the presence of the protomolecule. But where the first book used the trappings of noir mysteries and the unexpected-partners trope to sketch out the outline of this universe, this book seeks to shade things in. Instead of two alternating points of view, we’re given several: James Holden (the boneheaded accidental hero of the first book), Prax Meng (whose singleminded focus on finding his daughter is a faded copy of Detective Miller’s focus from the first book), and two new introductions from a more… professional side of the world. See, where Holden and Miller and Meng are all outer-planet/Belter guys – Wild West types, living on the edge of the law at times – whereas Bobbie (the Martian marine who survived a protomolecule attack) and Chrisjen Avasarala (a sassy septuagenarian undersecretary at the UN) are members of the machine. They play the game from the inside. Suddenly, the roguish Solar System we’d seen in Leviathan Wakes has become a larger and far more nuanced one – one that feels even more realistic than the gritty one we all thought was pretty realistic in the first book.
Avasarala, in particular, is a welcome introduction. She’s foul-mouthed and an old-school politician, one who admits to playing the game but who also knows that she can play the game better than most. I would read a whole novel about her attempting to out-maneuver the other people at the UN and not just because such tales are one of my sweet spots. She’s an ass-kicking female character in a genre that absolutely needs more of them – and she does it without ever having to literally kick ass.
That literal ass-kicking is saved for Bobbie, our Martian Marine. Although she is occasionally given some cliched dialogue or moments, she’s an unabashedly awesome character who fills a “traditionally” masculine role. The time will come when this is unremarkable in genre novels, but we’re still early enough in the world’s awakening that this is absolutely worth remarking on. She and Avasarala join Naomi as Mako-Mori-Test-passing women
In fact, one of the best things about this series is that it is populated by utterly human characters. They all feel nuanced and organic, like we’d expected humans to look in a few hundred years out there in the solar system. Even little moments that could be throwaways, like one near the end about Holden & Naomi’s relationship (specifically the possibility of children), add immeasurable depth to the universe and to the folks who occupy it.
The big issue I had with this book, though, is that plenty of moments feel like they’re rehashed from the first installment and just given a twist. Understandably, the protomolecule is a big player – and to see it… well, for lack of a better term, evolving (whether naturally or under direction) is certainly interesting, but the scenes on Ganymede feel like a twist on the scenes from Phebe. An incursion onto an infected spaceship late in the novel frankly feels like even the authors realized that they were reusing moments they’d already marked and it flies by faster and with less care than you would’ve expected, considering how it all went in the first book. So too the overall nefarious political plot to weaponize the protomolecule: it’s a little “they destroyed the Death Star so we will build… another Death Star“. The final moments of the novel, the revelations regarding just what the protomolecule has been doing and what’s been happening on Venus, open up such a realm of possibility that the internecine squabbles of humanity feel like small potatoes in comparison – and perhaps that’s why a second go-round of a plot as we saw in the first novel feels so egregiously, well, similar. But I trust that the two gents behind James S. A. Corey have a plan – and the universe they’ve built is, two books in, so damned strong that they can honestly do whatever they’d like and I’ll be there.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The problem of this book is intriguing. On the one hand, it rehashes several plot points and concepts from the first novel, just mixing them up enough to make things feel fresh. On the other hand, this is a far stronger novel than the first one and it introduces a wider cast of characters, giving the reader a deeper investment into this universe and just being altogether more entertaining. The only conclusion I have is that the two are meant to be read in pretty short succession – and that, having worked out the kinks, the two brains behind the pen of James S. A. Corey are going to knock it out of the park next time.