Bok cover: Calibans War - James S A Corey (a space station above a planet, red background sky)Six months after Eros, the solar system still hovers in uneasy peace as it watches Venus to see what the protomolecule will do next. Can UN Deputy Undersecretary of Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala keep the nervy planets focused on the greater threat?

Caliban’s War moves the narrative swiftly along, introducing three new point of view characters and a new protomolecular creature of mysterious provenance that brings the solar system to the brink of war once again. It’s probably just about possible to enter the series here and figure it out as you go along – but I suspect it will be the last book where that’s true.

One thing that has stepped up since Leviathan – alongside the stakes – is Corey’s focus on character development. The new characters are far more rounded from their first step onto the stage, even while the setting expands to take in UN and Martian politics. While there’s more than enough plot to go around, it didn’t take half the book to warm to its protagonists.

I was sucked in from the start, effortlessly won over by foul-mouthed Avasarala, an Indian grandmother who weaponises obscenities in her masterful manipulation of people and events; hard-assed Bobbie Draper, Martian marine and some-time superwoman; and devastated Praxidike Meng, biologist desperate to find his abducted daughter Mei (fair warning: the prologue is as devastating as Leviathan (in a different way). I spent the entire novel on tenterhooks about what had happened to Mei Meng).

I was also intrigued by the unexpected character development on the Rocinante: it’s quickly apparent that Jim Holden is no longer the all-round white knight who asks questions before shooting. The events on Eros and six months as Fred Johnson’s security force have left him so traumatised and trigger happy that he might as well be wearing a ridiculous pork pie hat…

Caliban’s War also begins to shade in more detail on others on the Roci‘s crew – Amos in particular gets a lot of page time in the first half as Holden’s enforcer. While I liked him well enough in Leviathan, in Caliban I fell helplessly in love – the amiable young man with the skill for killing shows both just how ruthless he is and his unexpected sense of justice (the canned chicken scene was traumatic, but I adored his determination to do right by Mei as much as I air-punched when he unexpectedly became Holden’s conscience).

Naomi is a queen, as ever – inevitably confronting Jim with what you’re (hopefully) thinking as you read his antics – and forcing the rest of the crew to look themselves in the mirror. Even Alex begins to round out a little.

The plot is as intricate and twisty as the first outing, but I couldn’t help but notice that the broad strokes were awfully familiar. It wasn’t quite possible to call what would happen next – and it was all such high-octane I didn’t really care – but I was hardly surprised by where the characters found themselves, or what was going on. And on the plus side, the injection of politics and manipulation courtesy of Chrisjen Avasarala was always going to keep me entirely happy.

Sometimes it’s the journey that matters; here it’s a question of distraction – the human powers squabbling over crumbs while the mysterious power on Venus bides its time… Where Leviathan was all plot, arguably Caliban is all character – the familiar structure an opportunity to allow our protagonists to face up to their traumas and conquer their fears. The climax is stunning, not as an action sequence (although it does just fine on that front too), but as an emotional and psychological denouement.

This is an excellent sequel – and that outrageously cheeky closing scene leaves me gasping to pick up Abaddon’s Gate.

****

 

I read Caliban’s War as part of @sffreadalongs. My weekly discussion posts (unabashedly spoilertastic, be warned) can be found here: Week 1 | Week 2 |Week 3 | Week 4