Friday, July 14, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey

by Karen S. Wiesner

I started reading The Expanse Series when I found the boxed set with the first three novels in Orbit Books newsletter. I love science fiction, especially when it's combined with horror, similar to the Ridley Scott Alien franchise, which, not surprisingly, was a major influence for this particular series. The short story, "Drive", is the prequel to the entire series, and James S. A. Corey (authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, using the joint pen name) offered a free download of it from their website, which I printed and read after I'd finished the first three novels. From that point on, I purchased each novel and short story/novella as it was released. In the years the authors actively worked on this series, I followed it, purchasing each book in hardcover, since that was the fastest way to get it ASAP after release.

The premise of The Expanse Series is that future humanity has colonized most of "The Solar System", but they don't yet have interstellar travel. Mankind has settled in the asteroid belt (Ceres and Eros), Mars and the moon with domed settlements; and some outer planets (several Jupiter moons including Ganymede and Europa; Saturn's Phoebe; and Uranus's Titania). In the time the series is set, tensions are rising. Earth's United Nations and Mars' Congressional Republic are the superpowers that exert their combined hegemony over Belters--those who populate the asteroid belt. Because of the low-gravity environments they live, their bodies tend to be longer and thinner than other humans. Belters (who use a form of modified Creole speech) are the blue collar workers of the galaxy, working to provide the system with the natural resources needed by all, and, as such, they're disrespected by other humans in the galaxy. In order to fight exploitation at the "Inners" hands, Belters have formed loose military groupings within the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA). The OPA is considered a terrorist organization by other humans.

In Leviathan Wakes, Book 1, readers are introduced to several of the core characters in this series. James "Jim" Holden, a former UN Navy officer from Earth, is XO of an ice hauling ship called Canterbury along with chief engineer Naomi Nagata, a Belter; pilot Alex Kamal, who's a Martian navy (MCRN) veteran; and engineer Amos Burton with a background that, let's just say, grows more interesting with each installment. These four become the original members of the Rocinate or Roci, a state of the art Martian frigate they claim as their own. A distress signal leads them to a derelict transport vessel, the Scopuli, and from there to Julie Mao, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy magnate.

At the same time, a washed-up detective named Josephus "Joe" Miller, a Belter from Ceres Station's Star Helix Security, is also searching for Julie Mao.

The investigation of Jim and his crew and Miller converges on Eros, where Julie is found…afflicted with an alien organic biohazard growth that quickly spreads across the entire station. Life as anyone knows it will change from this moment forward when humanity gains access to thousands of new worlds via the use of an artificially constructed ring network created by a long-dead race of aliens. The number of directions that this series goes as it explores all of this potential boggled my mind as the saga became bigger and bigger with each book.

While the characters mentioned above comprise the major players, there were so many fascinating, richly embellished, unique cast members. While Jim Holden always came across as a good, incorruptible man and, as such, was my favorite, so many of the characters were so complex, it was hard to pin short-sighted labels like "good" or "evil" on any of them. They were each completely human with all the moments of cringe-worthy regret and heroic larger-than-life altruism. Amos was another favorite who compelled me to think deeply as he evolved into the person he became at the end.

Some other intriguing players that make frequent appearances throughout the books are Bobbi Draper, a Martian gunnery sergeant in the MCRN; the foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration on Earth; Fred Johnson, the leader of the OPA, who's a former UN marine (and the subject of the short story "The Butcher of Anderson Station"); Marco and Filip Inaros, father and son with Marco commanding a radical OPA branch called the Free Navy; Camina Drummer, chief security of Tycho Station; and Clarissa Moa, another daughter of the magnate that Amos calls Peaches.

The first installment in the series is the one that I binged-read in a matter of days because the biohazard aspect utterly fascinated me, as did pretty much anything Jim Holden did from start to finish in every story he was in. But several other stand-out offerings were "The Churn" novella and the eighth novel in the series, Tiamat's Wrath.

At the announcement of the last one, Leviathan Falls, I know I wasn't the only obsessed reader who felt we'd only touched the tip of the iceberg in exploring all the saga had to offer. The series left me wanting more while at the same time satisfying all my main requirements. I simply wasn't ready for it to end, though I suspect the main crew of the Roci might have, given what they went through in the countless years that encompass the whole of this exciting sequence.

As most probably already know because many sci-fi readers prefer a more visual medium over book format, The Expanse became a TV series that went through countless upheavals and ended far too soon, not covering as much ground as the book series did. The perfectly chosen cast gave it their all, and I applaud the show for how well they portrayed something so big, it was hard to contain it the way they had to. Both the novel and TV series are well-worth your time, and they've got a permanent place on my keeper shelves. Comic versions, board and roleplaying games are also available for the series.

One of the most defining factors about The Expanse was just how realistic it all seemed. I was sold completely on the premise, and I can easily imagine so many aspects of the "science" and politics to this series happening in the near future just as they're portrayed in this saga.

I do have to comment that the titles of the novels are annoying obscure and really have nothing whatsoever to do with the stories within them. Whenever I try to remember which story belonged in which novel, I'm completely lost--and that's a direct result of the fact that the titles that were saddled on the novels in the series seem arbitrary and not clearly defined. If there was a trick to understanding why they were named as they were, the authors should have given readers a clue what it was to prevent us from becoming lost and confused. That is the sum total of my complaint with this series. Incidentally, the shorts all had titles that made sense and described the stories contained within.

A quick word about the book order, which is a bit of an issue since short stories and novellas were published between the main novels that don't necessarily follow the main storyline chronologically. Frequently, the shorts covered past events as well as pivotal character backgrounds. The publisher suggests reading them in the order they were published since that way characters first introduced in the novels gain further background characterization through the shorts. With prior knowledge and familiarity, the novellas can be enjoyed and understood in context. Also, the shorts may contain spoilers to the novels, which could be a deal-breaker to some. That said, the suggested reading order is this:

1.     Leviathan Wakes, Book 1

2.     "The Butcher of Anderson Station" (set before Leviathan Wakes)

3.     Caliban's War, Book 2

4.     "Gods of Risk"

5.     "Drive" (set before Leviathan Wakes)

6.     Abaddon's Gate, Book 3

7.     "The Churn" (set before Leviathan Wakes)

8.     Cibola Burn, Book 4

9.     Nemesis Games, Book 5

10.  "The Vital Abyss" (set between Abaddon's Gate and Cibola Burn)

11.  Babylon's Ashes, Book 6

12.  "Strange Dogs"

13.  Persepolis Rising, Book 7

14.  Tiamat's Wrath, Book 8

15.  "The Last Flight of the Cassandra" (set during Leviathan Wakes)

16.  "Auberon" (set between Persepolis Rising and Tiamat's Wrath)

17.   Leviathan Falls, Book 9

Note that all of the shorts are all published in a compilation called Memory's Legion that's well worth investing in for collectors.


Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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