Bad Men Doing Bad Things

The Expanse: Book Two

Caliban's War

I’ve been steadily working my way through The Expanse series of novels, and I’ve been trying to think of ways to discuss the books without comparing them to the seasons of the show that came after. That’s a hard thing to do having come to these books from the show (and having watched the show through repeatedly because, well, it’s one of my favorite shows, period). I read the events of the novels and automatically compare it to what I know from the series. “This happened differently there. I liked how it went there but this is okay, too.” I know the books came first and the series is an adaptation of that, but The Expanse, the series, did a fantastic job of taking the events of the novels and turning them into a series. It is, frankly, a solid adaptation that shows some adaptations can really be good.

As such, I think I have to give up on any attempt at writing reviews that don’t compare the novels to the show. I know the show and these novels, while fantastic, will always be compared to the episodes in my head. So while I’ll try to give good reviews of the books on their own, it’s best to consider this a book-to-series book club. It’s how I’m approaching them and, for anyone joining now, I have to assume most will have seen the show before dipping into the books as well. Consider yourself duly noted just in case you’re doing these in the “proper” order of books first, then the show.

Book two of The Expanse, Caliban’s War, picks up some months after the end of novel one, Leviathan Wakes. James Holden and his crew about the Rocinante – Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton, and Alex Kamal – have been flying the ship for the OPA, acting as a protector for the outer planets in the Solar System, taking down pirates and smugglers. But while they’ve been handling that mission, other major events have been rumbling through the Solar System. Earth and Mars are still on the edge of war, staring at each other across multiple battle lines, and that includes Ganymede, the “bread basket for the Solar System”, the moon upon which much of the food for the outer planets is grown.

When a battle breaks out on Ganymede, seemingly started by a protomolecule-fueled soldier charging through the battle lines of the two sides, it kicks off a massive space assault that breaks the solar mirrors that provide light to the crops on the moon. It also destroys two of the farming domes, all but crippling food production on Ganymede. While this attack is going on, a little girl, Mei, is taken by her doctor, Strickland, along with a lot of other kids on the moon. Strickland has been treating these kids for a rare autoimmune disease, but his motives for taking the kids are not altruistic, as proven by the fact that he takes Mei and the others before the attack in Ganymede occurs, like he knew it would happen. When her father, Prax, discovers she’s gone, he spends all of his time over the next months trying to track Strickland down. That’s how he ends up with Holden and his crew, hiring them to help him find Mei and stop whatever Strickland is planning.

And this all is going on while Chrisjen Avasarala, U.N. Undersecretary, is working behind the scenes to try and figure out just what is going on. What was the attack on Ganymede all about? Does it have anything to do with Venus, which has been seeing some strange activity, and a lot of weird growth, ever since the protomolecule-infected asteroid, Eros, crashed into the planet? She has more questions than answers, but it all points to a conspiracy headed up by Jules-Pierre Mao, head of the Mao textiles empire, if only she could prove it. But when a Martian soldier, Roberta “Bobbie” Draper, defects to Earth’s side, Avasarala finds the ally she needs to put all the pieces together.

When watching the first three seasons of The Expanse, which were based on these first two novels, it was clearly obvious that certain things going on in the show were stretched or changed to suit characters that weren’t originally intended to be there. Bobbie, for example, has a short plotline in the first half of season two that doesn’t really seem to connect to anything, feeling like table setting. That’s because the first half of that season was wrapping up the story of Leviathan Wakes and Bobbie wasn’t in that book at all. Similarly, Avasarala’s storyline in the first season, while eventually important, remained disconnected from the events going on in the outer Solar System until the back half of season two and the start of season three, and that’s because she, also, wasn’t in the first book. Now, though, with Caliban’s Wars, we get two major characters from the series finally showing up properly here.

Honestly, I like how the book handles Avasarala and Bobbie better than the series. Naturally the series had to find ways to introduce major characters that would appear throughout stories down the road and lock them into contracts, which ensured the actors wouldn’t wander off and have to be recast (an issue novels never have to deal with), so I understand why Avasarala was put into season one in a storyline that did feel very disconnected from the rest of the series. I get why Bobbie had a prologue mission that didn’t really tie into anything else after the fact. We needed the actresses so they were there when necessary, but it was an awkward fit for the stories we were giving. Bringing them in as characters in book two makes them feel less tacked on, more important when needed. It just works better and shows one of the few flaws of the series by comparison.

On the flip side, the series works better when it comes to the friendship between Prax, botanist from Ganymede, and Amos, engineer of the Rocinante. In the book they bond over searching for Mei, but you don’t get that true sense that these two men become best friends, people that would stay in touch even as they go their separate ways. Amos wants to find Mei for personal reasons (he’s seen kids get ground up by corrupt systems, and even was one for a little while), but the bond of friendship doesn’t get as developed as I was expecting. The show, building on the natural, friendly chemistry between the two actors, made the characters into best friends. “He’s my best friend in the whole world.” It added depth to both of them and gave you a bond you wanted to see carried on again later. When Prax shows up again, for a cameo, you feel more connected to him because he has that bond with Amos, who remained a regular in the story. That element is missing in the books (at least so far).

With that said, the book does a great job giving depth and focus to the featured players this time. The book is told from the perspective of four characters – Holden, Prax, Avasarala, and Bobbie – with the plotlines basically following two different threads: the events in the outer Solar System and the conspiracy hunt on Earth. Holden and Prax follow the former while Avalsarala and Bobbie are on Earth, and then the two aligned threads join together in the last act of the book when the characters join forces to bring down the active players and stop the protomolecule experiments. It’s a solid way to construct the story and it allows us to see in each character’s heads and get their feelings and thoughts more directly. It’s easier to understand Prax’s blind quest for his daughter, Holden’s fear over the protomolecule, Avasarala’s need to win, Bobbie's desire to avenge her fallen comrades, when we can get their thoughts on the matter. That’s something a show will never be able to do as thoroughly, no matter how strong the performances are.

The highlight of the book for me was Bobbie, who is just as great here as she is on the series. I won’t lie, I’m a big fan of her character and I was glad to see her come back in every season of the show (so far, in my early reading of the third book, I haven’t seen any mention of Bobbie but I do hope she returns). She’s the first perspective on the Solar System conflict we get from Mars’s perspective, and it’s very much needed. Holden is from Earth, Miller and Prax are of the Outer Planets. We needed someone from Mars in a lead role and Bobbie provides that perspective. Plus, she just kicks ass, being tough as nails and a powerhouse warrior. She’s just as enjoyable in the book and that really made me happy.

The story of the protomolecule experiments is played as a mystery here in the book, even if we kind of know the major players from the outset. The series follows Mei at times, letting us see more of what happens once she’s pulled away from Ganymede. But with the limited perspective of the novel, and Mei not given a lead role, we never see what’s going on with the experiments until the heroes show up and stop it all. While I like the idea of keeping the exact why and wherefore of the protomolecule experiments hidden, in practice I don’t think the mystery amounts to much of anything. The book is pretty clear that Strickland is evil, Mao is evil, and they’re behind everything. It’s more about getting the heroes up to speed than actually adding any real twists or major reveals to the story. The show handles this better with its broader perspective, and extra time spent on Mao to develop him as a character, and I think I like that better.

In general though, I can’t say that I like one version more than the other. I like the story of Caliban’s War, both in text and visual forms, as I think it’s a solid continuation of the basic setup from the first book. It shows the expanded reach of the overarching story (that of the protomolecule) and continues the development of this universe in interesting and exciting ways. The new characters are great and they slot well into the overall story. The extra perspectives give more room for the story to evolve and expand, and we get plenty of new ways of viewing things that broadens our understanding of this whole conflict. Certain details are better in the book, others in the series, but they’re both solid versions of this story.

While I probably would give the edge for the first book over the first season (and a half) of the series, I think here we’re in a solid tie. Whether you want to read the story, or watch it, both options are good. This book is a great read and, despite being nearly 600 pages, was a fast page-turner. It’s worth picking up to immerse yourself in the world of The Expanse. Just make sure to set aside enough time to tear through it… because you will.