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“Abaddon’s Gate” by James S.A. Corey

Abaddons Gate

I enjoyed the first two books in “The Expanse” series, but I did feel that the second book felt a bit like a partial retread of the first book and didn’t add many new ideas. Fortunately, “Abaddon’s Gate” makes up for that by bringing in some welcome new ideas and plotlines.

The book opens with a fleet of ships from the solar system’s various rival powers (plus, inevitably, the crew of the Rocinante) warily investigating a strange structure the alien protomolecule has constructed in the outer reaches of the solar system. The object is clearly a giant gate to some other place but where it leads is unclear and the various ships are reluctant to make their way through but the narrative demands that they end up venturing through even if the way it happens is a bit unexpected. James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have other ideas and would rather be anywhere else but someone in the fleet with revenge on their mind hatches a plan that forces them through the gate.

I’ve always had a fondness for Science Fiction novels involving exploring the unknown and this is a good example of the subgenre. Initially it’s impossible to know what they’ll find on the other side of the gate but some (although not all) of its mysteries are gradually revealed through the book.

One of the main strengths of the book is how the different factions- Earth, Mars, the Outer Planets Alliance and Holden’s crew – are all mutually out of their depth and as they face an increasingly desperate struggle for survival in a hostile environment they are forced to work together despite in some cases having recently fought a war against each other. Even in such a situation some of the people on the ships can’t stop scheming and trying to dominate their rivals leading to some tense and claustrophobic scenes as a battle begins for control of the fleet.

Thankfully there’s no corporate conspiracy to develop new weaponry or a search for a missing person, those were plotlines that worked very well in Leviathan Wakes, but after the similar plotlines in Caliban’s War it is nice to see a completely different plot.

There are plenty of ideas and plenty of action in the book, but the strongest element is probably the characters. The crew of the Rocinante continue to be entertaining characters to follow, even if Holden’s conviction that he always knows the right thing to do can sometimes get irritating for both the other characters and the reader. The vengeance-obsessed Clara is an interesting antagonist, particularly when she becomes increasingly conflicted about what she is doing. After the cynical greed of the villains in the first two novels she is a good having contrast, since she has clearly been unhinged by some traumatic events into becoming fixated on punishing Holden and his crew for their perceived transgressions, and she experiences the most character development as she gradually becomes more aware of the consequences of her actions. Sadly, there’s no return for Avasarala, the best character in the previous book, but the two other new point of view characters are both interesting. Methodist pastor Anna might challenge Holden in terms of the strength of her conviction about doing the right thing but unlike Holden she does try to persuade others to her point of view and I think she is a another compelling character, particularly as she tries to take a role of mediator as the situation becomes increasingly chaotic. Like Avasarala she’s a good example of how a character can shape events by influencing the people making the decisions, although she is sometimes forced out of her comfort zone into taking action herself. The final major new character is the OPA’s security chief, Bull, who is in some ways a successor to Miller from Leviathan Wakes, a character who is trying to fulfil his mission and protect his ship even if it means he has to do some hard and ruthless things. There are also a number of interesting supporting characters, although one who ends up being one of the main antagonists to Holden and his crew does develop into a bit of a caricature.

Overall, I think this is an excellent piece of Space Opera that’s the best novel in a series that was already good.

Rating : 8.5 / 10


“The Tyrant’s Law” by Daniel Abraham


I felt that the second book in Abraham’s “The Dagger and the Coin” series was a significant improvement on the first book so I was hoping the upward trajectory of the series would continue with the third book in the series. I think in some ways it was a step up with some of the best character development in the series and some of the best writing, although it does suffer slightly in comparison with “The King’s Blood” due to the lack of any single event as compelling as the revolt in Camnipol.

One of the criticisms I had with the first book was that although a significant element of the world-building was that the world was inhabited by thirteen races of humanity which had been designed by their dragon overlords to have different traits we saw relatively little of the more exotic races. All of the protagonists were from the vanilla Firstborn race, with the exception of Cithrin who was half-Cinnae but had been raised in a Firstborn household and who had little connection with her heritage. Although there had been many characters from other races in the supporting cast in the previous book it isn’t until this book that they really start to play a major role in the story. While much of the first two books took place in the Antean Empire this book does seem to make more of an effort to show more of the world with Marcus and Kit journeying to the southern jungles, eastern mountains and northern tundra in an increasingly desperate attempt to find a way of fighting back against the powers of the Priesthood who have come to dominate the Antean Empire and who seem intent on conquering the rest of the world. Cithrin spends most of the book in the city of Suddapal, and Abraham does a good job of showing the contrast between the Timzinae society who make up most of the population of the city and the Firstborn societies that have been seen in earlier books. The change in culture also has an interesting effect on Cithrin’s character as the chance to see things from a different perspective does seem to assist her character development.

I had thought that Cithrin’s character development had stalled a bit in “The King’s Blood” (after having been one of the best characters in the first book) but this book does give her better character development and also provides some explanation for some of her sometimes uncharacteristic behaviour in the second book. Geder has now completed his journey from sympathetic dupe to delusional tyrant and he continues to be a compelling and detestable character. One of the strengths of the series is that it does manage to make even his more extreme actions seem plausible from his (admittedly very skewed) perspective and also makes it plausible that the Antean Empire has allowed itself to be manipulated into taking part in a crusade against the blameless Timzinae. One Antean who hasn’t been manipulated into following Geder is Clara Kalliam and she gets one of the strongest plotlines in the book as she attempts to quietly undermine his rule despite her lack of resources. Fantasy novels often tend to focus on warriors or heroes with great destinies and it is refreshing to have a plotline focusing on a middle-aged woman fighting against a tyrant armed with nothing more than an in-depth knowledge of Antean society. Marcus is probably the most predictable of the protagonists, he can always be relied on to try do what he believes is the right thing (even if it isn’t necessarily wise) and he doesn’t have quite as much depth as the others but despite that he is an entertaining character to read about. The supporting cast also continue to be strong, particularly Kit and Yardem, their interactions with Marcus being a particular highlight.

This is the middle book in a five book series and at times it does feel very much like a middle book, it has plenty of character development and progression in plotlines but arguably it lacks any really major events until the final chapter of the book. The final chapter does have ending which manages to be surprising despite being blatantly set up by the prologue and it does set up a potentially fascinating plotline for the later books in the series. The epilogue is also a highlight, showing things from a completely different and surprising perspective that sheds a new light on many aspects of the backstory of the world. Elsewhere, Marcus and Kit’s journey around much of the world does provide some of the highlights of the book, including an exploration of a long-abandoned temple and an amusingly anti-climatic raid on an enemy stronghold.

Abraham has always been a good writer, in both this series and his “Long Price” quartet, but he has some particularly good passages in this book, often coming from Kit and Marcus’ dialogue although some of Cithrin’s conversations with Yardem and her hosts in Suddapal are also good at succinctly summarising some of the themes of the series.

After a slow start “The Dagger and The Coin” has developed in a very good fantasy series. At times “The Tyrant’s Law” does feel like a lot like the middle book that it is and plot resolution will have to wait until later books in the series, but it does have some good character development and it does a good job of adding depth to the world the series is set in.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes

James Holden is an idealistic ex-military officer on a mining ship who stumbles across a dangerous mystery when investigating a derelict ship drifting in space. Detective Miller is a cynical and corrupt policeman stationed on an asteroid colony who is hired to look for a missing young woman and finds himself increasingly determined to find out the cause of her disappearance. When both the abandoned ship and Miller’s case turn out to be connected Holden and Miller both find themselves dealing with dangerous secrets that could threaten the entire solar system.

The book is a collaboration between Daniel Abraham and debut author Ty Franks, I wouldn't have said it was obvious that it was written by two authors and their writing does seem fairly consistent throughout. Abraham has been one of the best new fantasy authors of recent years (his “Long Price” series being particularly good) and it’s to Franks’ credit that his chapters are comparable in quality to those written by his more experienced co-author. The quality of the writing is good throughout, and I thought the pacing was good as well. It doesn't take long for the plot to become interesting and it does a good job of increasing the amount that is at stake in successive increments, starting from what appears to be a simple act of piracy and ending with the future of humanity at stake. It does also tell a complete story, even if there is plenty of potential for plots for the later books in the series.

I thought the characterisation was also good, although the two main point-of-view characters get a lot more character development than the rest of the cast. The alternating point-of-views worked well, particularly in showing the different ways in which Holden and Miller deal with crises and it was particularly interesting to see how one main character appeared from the perspective of the other. Miller’s abrupt way of dealing with problems provides some of the book’s most memorable moments.

I liked the setting as well, most space opera stories seem to span several star systems but in Leviathan Wakes humanity is confined to the solar system due to the lack of faster-the-light travel. I thought it was a fairly plausible-sounding portrayal of how humanity would colonise the solar system, although in some places it could have done with a bit more detail (we never really hear much about what motivates the Earth or Martian governments even though it has quite a bit of relevance for the plot, but maybe we will in later books). It does a good job of conveying the claustrophobia and the perilousness of life on an asteroid colony. It does have a slightly old-fashioned feel to it and couldn’t really be said to be at the cutting-edge of Science Fiction writing, but there’s nothing wrong with a good, traditional Space Opera.

Overall, I thought this was a very good Science Fiction novel, particularly considering it is the first novel for one of the co-authors.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The King’s Blood” by Daniel Abraham


“The Dragon’s Path”, the first book in Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy series, was a reasonably good book but one I found a bit disappointing since it didn’t quite live up to the high standards set by his previous series, the “Long Price Quartet”. In his previous series each book had been an improvement on the previous one so I was hoping for something similar with this series, and the second book is indeed a significant improvement on the first.

One of the best things about the first book was the characterisation and the main characters do continue to develop here. Geder continues to be the most distinctive character and here he makes further steps along his path from bullied young nobleman to tyrannical despot and Abraham does a good job of switching between scenes where he seems like a sympathetic character to scenes where it is clear that his lack of empathy for the consequences of his actions is turning him into a monster. Dawson is the character who is pretty much Geder’s polar opposite, a generally unlikeable character with bigoted ultra-conservative opinions who is also admirable for his willingness to stand up for what he believes is right. Dawson’s wife Clara was one of the more interesting minor characters in the first book and she gets an expanded role in this book, where she is a good example of how to write a strong and powerful character in a militaristic society who is not a warrior. The storyline involving those three characters is the most interesting in the book, particularly as a power struggle gradually developed between Geder and Dawson, and it is more interesting than any of the plotlines in the first book. Some of the scenes in which Geder confronts the people he believes to be his enemies are particularly tense, and the big confrontation between Dawson and Geder is one of the most memorable scenes in the book.

Cithrin was perhaps the most interesting character in the first book but she has one of the weaker story arcs in this book since her plotline does seem excessively contrived at times, as she gets involved in the main plotline of the book and largely abandons the plotline about her setting up her bank branch that had formed most of her story in the first book. Some of her interactions with Geder feel a bit unbelievable in terms of her characterisation, in particular her surprisingly muted reaction to one revelation about his past deeds. Marcus doesn’t get much to do in the early part of the book and it’s a bit surprising how foolish he is in some of his decision-making. In the second half of the book he sets off on a quest which seems likely to be relevant to the overall story arc of the series, but it does feel a bit disconnected from the rest of this book.

The world-building is reasonably good but it continues to be slightly frustrating that although the dozen different races of humanity form a major part of the background the main characters are almost all from the same race and the races feel like background detail rather than an important part of the world. While the Long Price Quartet had a very distinctive setting, this world does continue to feel like a fairly generic epic fantasy setting, although there is still a lot of potential for it to be developed further in later books in the series.

In summary, this is a good improvement on the first book and if there are further improvements in later books then this might eventually be ranked among the best of the current Epic Fantasy series.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Dragon’s Path” by Daniel Abraham


This is the first book in Daniel Abraham's five volume Epic Fantasy series, "The Dagger and the Coin", the series title referring to one of the main themes about how both military might and financial power can be equally important. The two main plotlines in the book follow the attempts of a naive young officer to make the best of a situation when he is placed in command of the military occupation of a conquered city and the efforts of a young refugee to turn other people's gold into her own bank. Meanwhile, an exiled priest warns of a long-forgotten threat that could ultimately have a bigger impact on the world than any army or financial institution.

I think Abraham's "Long Price Quartet" is one of the best fantasy series of the last decade so I was looking forward to the start of his next series. Compared to the brilliance of the last couple of Long Price books, this did turn out to be a disappointment overall - there were quite a few good bits in it I really liked but I wasn't that keen on much of the plot. The parts of the book concerning the intrigues among the two groups trying to influence the Antean throne were not particularly compelling and it was difficult to really care which side actually won.

Abraham has some wonderful characterisation in his previous series and there were some good characters here as well, but also some I found a bit unconvincing, particularly one character's muted reaction to the consequences of a monstrous decision he takes. I liked the other major plotline a bit more, Cithrin's attempts to establish herself as a banker were more interesting, she was a better developed character and the plot was relatively original as an Epic Fantasy plotline (Feist's "Rise of a Merchant Prince" is the only other book I can think of with a similar plotline). There were also some good supporting characters, I particularly liked the Apostate from the prologue and Clara Kalliam who was a much more interesting character than her husband.

The world-building has potential, but so far isn't developed in any great detail and although it talks a bit about the 13 races of humanity I wouldn't say I really have much of an idea what distinguishes them and the locations we see are fairly standard fantasy cities. At times it does feel like Abraham is consciously trying to write an Epic Fantasy along the lines of Martin's "A Song Of Ice and Fire" and I think his books were more interesting when he was writing a more original work like the "Long Price Quartet".

Overall, this is a reasonably good book and it still has the potential to turn into a good series, but judged on its own I suspect the first book will end up being a bit unmemorable.

Rating : 7 / 10