The books in The Expanse series have all been terrific reads. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who write under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, have said their writing style is basically "make it awesome." The latest book in the series, Abaddon's Gate, more than achieves that goal, adding to the reputation they've achieved thus far.
Abraham and Franck have a tendency to open with a shocking hook that pulls you in and refuses to let go. In Leviathan Wakes it was a captured crewmember who escapes to find the horrible remains of her crew. In Caliban's War, a fearsome attack kidnaps a young child on Ganymede.
In each novel, Corey starts off small and ends big, and that's exactly what happens in Abaddon's Gate. In this latest outing in the rapidly growing Expanse series, a gung-ho Belter tries to slingshot through an alien artifact known as the ring, turning himself into a liquid when it abruptly stops him. From there, we're off to the races, and it's utterly fantastic to be catapulted through Corey's solar system once again.
Abaddon's Gate picks up a year after the events of Caliban's War, when an alien protomolocule constructed a major artifact: a ring that was flown beyond Neptune's orbit. When the Belter tries to thread the ring with his spaceship, it sets into motion a major interplanetary incident that brings each of the major Solar System factions (Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance) to the Ring, where they begin to study the construct, and keep tabs on one another.
Along for the ride are the series protagonists, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. They've recently hit some hard times: the Martian government is trying to get their warship back and they're facing an uncertain future among the planets. That changes when they get a job to bring a documentary crew out to the Ring, only to find that they've been set up by someone seeking to exact revenge for the prior actions of Holden and his crew. On top of all that, Holden has been seeing his long-dead friend Miller, who appears with some cryptic messages when he's not expecting it.
As they find themselves out at the end of the Solar System with the rival fleets, a situation arises that threatens the fragile peace of the solar system, and reveals the nature of the protomolocule and the civilization behind it. As the survivors come to grips about their situation, they must contend with factions that could spell the end of humanity.
After each book in this series, I've found myself sitting back and wondering how it'll be possible to top the last one — and each time, I've been impressed at how they manage to escalate the tension, action and drama in each installment. Abaddon's Gate further escalates the threat level that the protomolocule posed in the earlier books, but Abraham & Franck sidestep the creation of a Lovecraftian monster from beyond the Solar System. Rather, the threat comes from within, with a single actor's drive for revenge and the knee-jerk reactions that follow.
The human drama is where The Expanse has always been particularly strong, and this latest installment really slams the theme home. The assembled fleet first suffers an act of sabotage, and Holden, accused of the crime, takes the only option available to him: through the ring and to whatever's on the other side, closely followed by elements of three governments. There, they find themselves and their actions at the brink of annihilation, facing two possible choices: try to destroy their captors, or take to heart what's happened to the fleet, and work out a way to escape. The culminating actions are among the most exciting moments put down to paper in this series, with the stakes raised to their highest level yet. Throughout, however, the characters that we follow have to come to terms with the violence around them, and realize that action isn't always what's needed to solve the problems facing them: it's understanding and forgiveness. They're hard lessons to swallow for most of the members of the fleet as the body count climbs and the clock slowly counts down.
Abaddon's Gate further develops the epic setting that Abraham and Franck have created, chiefly in putting the political ties between Earth, Mars and the OPA front and center. A major theme for this book is the idea of cooperation amongst factions. Throughout the series, the governments of Earth and Mars have been at odds, with the OPA struggling for recognition as a major power on the sidelines.
With the three groups stuck in the middle of an alien artifact, each character finds themselves facing an unenviable choice: work with the people that they don't get along with, or die alone, cut off from their homes. In a lot of ways, the fleets have their existence put into perspective, and that only by working together, they'll survive. In a lot of ways, they almost don't make it as the book races to a truly stunning conclusion that left me hanging on page by page that's equal to the last thirty minutes of any SF adventure you'll find at the movies.
Like Caliban's War, Abraham and Franck introduce a new cohort of characters in addition to the central crew of the Rosinante: Anna, a pastor, Melba/Carissa, a member of the Mao family bent on revenge, and Bull, an Earther working for the OPA's largest spacecraft. These three main characters compliment Holden and his crew, and are at points a more interesting collection of personalities. They represent all a wide range of the solar system, and through their eyes, we see an almost comprehensive view of the action that carries them along. A couple of characters from the preceding novel, Bobbie, the Martian Marine and Avasarala, the UN official, are mentioned, but don't actually appear. It's a bit of a shame, because they were both fascinating characters, but it does show a bit of discipline on the part of the authors to avoid overdoing it with the characters — a charge often leveled against George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels.
Abaddon's Gate feels like the finale of a major arc: originally, the authors were contracted for three, but that's since been doubled, bringing us to the middle of the series, but with enough of an arc to get what feels like closure to some major elements that made up the preceding novels. Taken together, Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War and Abaddon's Gate are an explosive, exciting adventure that blasts the hinges off the doors and keeps going.
The origins of this series have their roots as a game, and there are points where this really has the feel of a kick-ass video game crossed with an equally awesome Hollywood blockbuster. The world of The Expanse and the scale of the story would make any adaptation difficult (HBO, that's a challenge to you), and the authors recognize that any constraints that they have are to be taken out back and shot. This is literary space opera at its absolute best, and already, I'm eagerly counting down the months until the as-of-yet-unnamed 4th book in the series will make its way to bookstore shelves. In the meantime, however, I'm going to try and figure out how they're going to top this one.