Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caliban's War - James S.A. Corey

In the summer of 2011, I read Leviathan Wakes the first book in this series. James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, both form associates of George R.R. Martin. I have read quite a bit by Abraham and some of his books are very good indeed. Leviathan Wakes was quite a fun book to read which I thought did more than just be a the space opera it was supposed to be according to the publisher. The second volume appeared in 2012 and I decided to order it. It then lingered on the to read stack for almost three years. What pulled me back to it was the fact that the shooting for a television series based on this series (the fifth book of which, Nemesis Games, will appear in June) is under way. Having read Caliban's War I must admit it might make of a decent television series. That does not necessarily make it a good book though. I feel it is a step back from the first book in the series.

James Holden is now in the employ of the outer planets. In his liberated Martian spaceship he patrols the outer reaches of the solar system with his crew. It is a decent living but tensions are rising within the crew and the relationship beween Holden and his girlfriend Naomi is strained. Their situation changes radically when on Ganymede, the breadbasket of the outer solar system and a moon coveted by Earth, Mars and the outer planets, a firefight appears to break out between Martian and UN forces. The truth is more complicated than that though. The alien intelligence that almost killed Holden on Eros station. Once again he is sucked into events that could plummet the solar system into war, or worse, wipe out the human race completely.

Leviathan Wakes was a space opera with noir elements mixed in. In this book a mystery is included too, the disappearance of a young girl is a key part of the plot, but the space opera clearly has the upper hand. Corey shifts from two main points of view to four. Besides Holden, we get to see the story from the point of view of the Martian marine Bobbie, the only survivor of the incident on Ganymede, the scientist Prax from that same moon and father of the missing gril, and  UN official Avasarala who tries to prevent a war from engulfing the system despite her superior's stupid actions. These two men and two women shape the events described in the book. Unlike in Leviathan Wakes, the UN official in particular, can pull strings all over the system, making it much more a political story.

The novel is dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke and Alfred Bester, two greats of science fiction. I haven't read Bester but I can see traces of Clarke in this novel. I suspect that Heinlein was probably a greater influence on the novel though. There are quite a few political statements in the text. Bobbie in particular seems to hold strong views on Earth's social security system. The novel does take us all over the solar system however, and that is something Clarke would have appreciated. It is a story on a grand scale, with characters who, despite making it their home, are still in awe of the vastness of space. Corey might not be able to pull it off for the more experienced science fiction reader but the characters themselves, clearly exhibit a sense of wonder when they have a moment to reflect on their situation.

As I said in the introduction, this book lends itself well to television. It has four clearly defined main characters with clear wants you can easily sympathize with. Holden wants his girlfriend back, Bobbie wants to kill the bastard who wiped out her squad, Prax wants to find his daughter, and Avasarala wants to stay in the game. That is what they work for, it is what drives them and there is very little left over for any other concerns. It makes all of them fairly shallow characters. Holden is the only one who escapes this to an extend because he has a book worth of backstory. I found Avasarala's chapters the worst in this respect as she has the annoying tendency to see every little action in the perspective of her political games and is willing to use anyone to get what she wants. She is refreshingly outspoken about it though, I have to give her that. Still, she struck me as a character who plays the political game for its own sake, regardless of who many people get ground up in her machinations. Corey tries to put things in perspective by anchoring her to her family. Her husband in particular is important to her to keep things in perspective. I can't say I found him very convincing in that role.

Bobbie on sees things more of less from the other end. As a marine too much thinking is not encouraged and she reflects that almost to the point of stereotype. Bobbie is the common sense in this book. Where Avasarala's thinking is convoluted, Bobbie's way of thinking is simplicity itself. Which doesn't mean she doesn't show surprising insights at times. What I didn't think was convincing about her story is that she very easily lets go of her loyalties to Mars to serve the other side in the conflict. She does feel bad about it to an extent but she caries on anyway without, especially early on, a clear idea on how it would help her achieve her revenge or help improve the situation in general. On the one hand she is portrayed as a smart woman, on the other, she can't seem to think further ahead than the next five minutes. The early stages in the novel pay attention to post traumatic stress, something more novels dealing with war situation should take into account. That is definitely one of the stronger elements of her story line.

Prax is the third character with only one thing on his mind. His search for his daughter consumes him to the point that it could easily have cost him his life. He sees his world falling apart and is one of the few people on the station with the knowledge to slow the process enough for help to arrive. He doesn't do it though. His daughter is much more important to him. You can see the insights into what is going on on Ganymede bounce of him. They make no impact whatsoever. It is not until the very end of the book that he reconsiders his verdict on Ganymede as a lost cause. Prax is potentially a very interesting character but like the others, his is completely consumed by the immediate desire to find his little girl. It is a touching story but not one that allows Prax to develop any real depth.

Corey keeps the pace up in this novel. The chapters are not too long, to very the point and alternate between the four characters. The often end on cliffhangers, making the reader want to read just one more chapter. In that sense it is almost a compulsive read. The ending of the novel also contains a clear hook for the third book in the series. Structurally, you can almost see the episodes of a television series in it. It is a plot that is constructed in advance and then filled in as each of the authors making up Corey delivers their chapters.

The sense that is constructed rather than written is much more present in this second book and that is probably the main reason why I think it is a step back from the first novel Abraham and Franck seem to have settled in a routine and delivered a routine book. Caliban's War is not a bad read mind you, it did keep me entertained and I never considered putting it down, but this time it really is what it says on the package, a soap opera in space. I think these gentlemen are more talented than that. Still, it might make for a good television series. I think I am going to give that a go when the first episodes are aired. I'm not sure about reading Abaddon's Gate, the third book in the series though. I'll have to think about that.

Book Details
Title: Caliban's War
Author: James S.A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 595
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-990-1
First published: 2012


  1. I loved Leviathan Wakes but Caliban's War did not thrill me at all. I've tried 3 times to get into it, but I find it dull. I think killing off the best character, Miller, in the first novel was a huge mistake. The new characters have no charisma - I don't care what happens to them. The plot development is glacial; there are few surprises; I found every chapter a chore. The magic is gone. Maybe the TV series will rectify the novel somehow in their adaption.

    1. I haven't been tempted to pick up book two and it's been two years since I wrote this review. I very much doubt it will happen. Still curious about the TV series though. I still haven't actually seen any for it but I'm hearing good things.