One of the nice things about getting into a series late is that the wait between the last book you read and the next book to come out is pretty short. Which is why, not long after thoroughly enjoying Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, I found myself picking up its sequel, Caliban's War.
Like the first book, this one is just a monster of a tome. It's over six hundred pages long, which would be impressive enough on its own, but those pages are 6"x9", and there's not a lot of wasted margin, header or footer space. For the sheer amount of story they contain, each of these books could have been split in half as a standard mass-market paperback, and you would not have felt cheated.
Caliban's War picks up eighteen months after the conclusion of Leviathan Wakes. The protomolecule is still on Venus, and despite being watched by basically everyone and every institution with an even tangential interest in science, it's utterly inscrutable. In more mundane developments, the UN and Mars are both trying to hold on to Ganymede, breadbasket of the Outer Planets, and are about one sudden twitch away from an open shooting war. The Outer Planets Alliance, given at least some status at the end of the last book, has spent the intervening time establishing itself in its sphere of influence, minting money, directing relief supplies and keeping the peace. And with the only available warship in the area, the OPA has been turning to James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to do just that. The fragile peace is shattered, however, when what looks like a protomolecule-based monster slaughters first a UN and then a Martian military outpost on Ganymede; with each side thinking the either has finally stepped over the line, the space forces start shooting, blasting each other to pieces and doing major damage to the infrastructure of Ganymede in the process.
This is about where Caliban's War introduces its new characters. Praxidike Meng, a botanical geneticist on Ganymede. Roberta 'Bobbie' Draper, a Martian Marine and sole survivor of the monster attack on Ganymede. And Chrisjen Avasarala, a high-ranking UN bureaucrat and something of a power behind the throne of the Secretary-General. When Meng's daughter is kidnapped, along with all the other children on Ganymede with a particularly rare genetic immune deficiency, just ahead of the monster attack that Bobbie barely survives, the story really gets started. Like Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War is about the way enough little things can trip up the biggest plans; one more missing child on collapsing, war-ravaged Ganymede might seem like nothing, but it's the loose thread that sends Holden and his people right back into the thick of things.
Caliban's War is a good read, but for all its heft it feels in some way insubstantial, particularly compared to its predecessor. Partly, it's a function of the placement of characters. With Holden and Miller in the first book, the viewpoint characters were always on the front lines of the story. It was a conspiracy story, so of course they didn't know everything, but it always felt like whatever was happening that was important, one of those two men were involved. Unrealistic for a story concerning the fate of the entire solar system? Oh, certainly. But narratively compelling. In this book, however, while Holden and Meng are pretty good at being front and centre, there are also major political and military actions taking place that they really play no part in. And Avasarala and Bobbie are even worse, frankly. Each spends about half the book spinning their wheels while the other is in their element, which makes their sections drag when they're out of place. Bobbie's adventures on Earth are interesting enough in their own right, but rarely relate to anything besides character building, while Corey makes the frankly insane choice to remove Avasarala from her spheres of political influence towards the last third of the book. It makes perfect sense on the part of the characters, but it kills most of her narrative momentum. She's basically reduced to sending cryptic video letters to her allies and offering the odd bit of sage advice to the others, and it's a serious waste of an interesting and powerful character. On the other hand, without removing her from Earth, it would have been tough for Corey to link her into the main plot with Holden and Meng. In that case, though, perhaps Avasarala should have been redesigned earlier; replacing her with, say, the already space-based Admiral Souther might have gone a long way towards bringing home the immediacy of certain sections that otherwise fall a bit flat.
It might sound like I didn't enjoy this book; that could not be further from the truth. Caliban's War might not be as strong as Leviathan's Wake, but as I reached the end I understood why; Corey is writing a trilogy. The back of this book contains a small excerpt from Abaddon's Gate, and even from what little we see it's hard to imagine how this story could continue past that volume without radically, perhaps even fundamentally, changing its tone and focus. So, a trilogy. And what is always the weakest point of those? Yes, the middle book. Limited set-up, limited pay-off, because the former's all been done in book one and the latter's all being done in book three. Knowing that, being able to judge the book in context, I actually revised my opinion up a notch or two. All things being equal, Corey has pulled off this midway book quite nicely. If you enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, you should definitely enjoy Caliban's War.