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review 2019-08-31 11:26
"Caliban's War - The Expanse #2" by James S A Corey
Caliban's War - James S.A. Corey,Jefferson Mays

It's tough coming up with a sequel to a book as impressive and successful as "Leviathan Wakes". You have to walk the line between keeping continuity of plot and characters without simply repeating the first book with a slightly different problem set. The second book doesn't have the advantage of being new and unknown so the world-building has to continue and surprise has to be introduced along the way. With a series on the scale of "The Expanse" you literally need to keep expanding the scope and deepening the complexity of the plot while somehow keeping a human focus.

 

I think "Caliban's War" managed to navigate its way through all those challenges, It then exceeded my expectations by keeping me emotionally engaged all the way through.

 

After I'd set the book aside, let myself recover, ordered the next book in the series and taken a breathe, I kept coming back to HOW this had been achieved.

 

I've come up with three rules the authors seem to have followed to make "Caliban's War" work so well.

1. Keep the winning formula but make just enough changes to excite.

As with the first book, we have Holden tilting at windmills and launching himself and his crew on a quest to save the girl. Except this version of Holden is carrying the scars from the first book and living with the compromise he made with the OPA. Between them, those things are twisting him into someone he doesn't want to be.

 

Yet again we have the humanity under threat from the protovirus and ruthless amoral businessmen but this time the governments of Earth and or Mars seem to be involved and its possible that the protovirus has an agenda of its own.

2. Maintain the quality of the writing

One of the strengths of both books is how well written each scene is. There is no filler or padding. This is a novel written with to a well-thought-out storyboard where every scene has a purpose. Nothing is there just to move you along to a more important scene.

 

The point of view from which any scene is written remains consistent with other scenes from that same character's point of view. The scene may well move the plot along, or foreshadow doom or deepen the world-building but each scene ALWAYS builds the character of the person from whose point of view it's written.

 

The intercutting of the scenes is artfully managed to keep momentum, let you see some of the story arc coming, and leave you wishing you could have stayed with the previous character's scene for just a little longer.

3. Give me new characters to love or loathe

If I don't care about the characters then I'm not going to wade through a book as long as "Caliban's War". In a series of long books, there needs to be a constant flow of new characters. If the focus stays on the same small group of people all the time then the scope won't expand and it's likely that I'm going to have to twist the characters and their relationships out of shape to keep things fresh.

 

In "Caliban's War", I was given three new characters to engage with. Each of them is interesting in their own right as people while also giving me a very different view, based on their culture and their mindset, on what's going on.

 

I got Bobbie a Gunnery Sergeant in the Martian Marines. She competent, apolitical, focused on her mission to kill whatever it was that took her team apart in the opening to the book. She does more than give a soldier's perspective. She adds the view of someone with strong beliefs, independence of mind and a size and skill set that normally makes her the most dangerous person in any room.

 

I got Prax, the Belter botanist who has spent his life focusing on how to design plants that will thrive on stations and provide everyone with food and air. He's a quiet focused, logical man who takes great pleasure in each small victory while taking setbacks in his stride and keeping moving towards his goal. He's not a man of action. He's not a people person. He sees his work destroyed, his daughter abducted and knows that his city and everyone in it is dying. His reaction, a mixture of deep shock, grief, and grim determination to get his daughter back makes him a fascinating addition to the cast.

 

Finally, I got one of my favourite characters ever: Avasarala, a senior Earth politician/bureaucrat. In the testosterone-driven world of politics and military strategy, she stands out not just because she's the only woman in the room but because she has created a persona for herself as the old grandmother who wears bright saris, has a foul mouth and is completely ruthless.

 

Avasarala is not a cardboard cut-out hard-assed politician. She's married to a Professor of Poetry. She twists her diary to spend time with her grandchildren. She will use anyone and anything to get what she wants.

 

One of the things that I liked most about "Caliban's War" was Avasarala's growing awareness that her growing awareness that while she understood the political game and played it better than anyone else, she may have misunderstood what is really going on.

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review 2019-08-12 09:05
β€œThe Fifth Season – The Broken Earth #1” N. K. Jemisin – Highly Recommended
The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin

"The Fifth Season" is a remarkable book on the evil of slavery the ruthlessness of empires, the hunger for freedom and the persistence of hope.

 
 

"The Fifth Season" deserves all the praise it has received. It uses non-linear but easy to follow storytelling to explore heartbreaking themes by telling the story of people I grew to care about against the backdrop of an original, fully-realised, far-future version of Earth.

 
 

The struture of "The Fifth Season" requires you to trust the author enough to settle in your chair, enjoy each scene and wait for all the pieces to fall in place. The quality of the writing made this very easy for me to do.

 
 

The story is told directly to an unspecified reader for whom this is personal history. There are three stories, told in parallel, with slowly emerging links. I found this parallel exposition to be more powerful than a linear narrative because it initially increased the tension and gave me a puzzle to ponder and subsequently, as I understood more of what was going on, because it enabled me to put the strong emotions felt in each story storyline side-by-side and because the three stories together amplified the sense of loss as bad things happened again and again.

 
 
 

The world-building is strong but focused. Almost everything we learn deepens our understanding of the situation the main characters are in and why people behave as they do. It also delivers a continuous sense of foreboding as tense and inescapable like living beneath an active volcano.

 
 
 

The cover calls "The Fifth Season" an Epic Fantasy but I think that is a misnomer. An epic narrative celebrates heroes and glorious victories. This narrative dissects the cruelty of the powerful and the hero myths they use to feed their sense of entitlement to rule and as a technique for repressing and controlling everyone else. This book is not fantasy. There is no magic or magical creatures. There is only science and a long-enough timescale for the dance between science and nature to produce millions of iterations of change. The scale of the book is huge but the focus is always deeply, painfully personal.

 
 
 

This is Science Fiction doing what Science Fiction does best, holding up a mirror to us and imagining the nightmare we are capable of creating because of who we are and the actions we might take to become who we should be.

 
 

At first it may seem that the centre of the story belongs to the things that don't exist in our world: people with the power to control earthquakes, sentients non-humans that can move through stone, a planetary crust that is almost always unstable, the ruins and artefacts of dead civilisations and an Empire that has survived for thousands of years by being tough enough to do whatever was necessary to survive the Seasons of apocalyptic geothermal activity that killed all the civilisations before them.

 
 
 

All of that is the cleverly constructed filigree setting for the jewel that the power of the book comes from: a bone-deep understanding of the evil of slavery and the ruthless hunger for power that corrupts the heart of every empire, making it cruel and hateful. 

 

There's no preaching, just a slowly dawning realisation of how this world really works and with it, a growing anger, carefully nurtured and stoked, the way you ignite a fire that will last a while.

 

We see what it means for an adult to be owned, to be an asset, to be used as a weapon, to have no power over their own bodies, to have even their children taken away and owned by others.

 
 

We see how emperors and slavers institutionalise abuse by dehumanising those that they make slaves while domesticating the slaves themselves by leashing them from childhood to hopes of being worthy of love and respect. As one emperor explained it, you control those with power that you fear but which you can use by enslaving them and telling them.

 
 
 

"...they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Them them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they'll break themselves trying for what they'll never achieve" 

Yet what stays with me most are the characters in the book. These are real people, not always likeable, deeply fallible, cruelly twisted by the world they live in, who nevertheless persist. They continue. They strive. They take love where they can find it. They expect little and they hope less but they cannot bring themselves to give up.

 
 
 

The audiobook version of "The Fifth Season" is more than fifteen hours long yet it never dragged and I never wanted to set it aside and come back later. This is because it is so well written but also because Robin Miles delivers a superb performance as the narrator.

 
 
 
 

 

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text 2019-08-05 15:11
Reading progress update: I've read 26%.
The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin

This book deserved all the hype it got.

 

The storytelling is powerful but not particularly linear.

 

You have to settle in your chair, enjoy each scene and wait for all the pieces to fall in place.

 

The scale is huge but the issues are human.

 

The central issue seems to be how slavery damages everyone it touches - slaver and slave and those who look the other way.

 

There's no preaching, just a slowly dawning realisation of how this world really works and with it, a growing anger, fed slowly, the way you ignite a fire that will last a while.

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text 2019-07-15 08:30
Reading progress update: I've read 52%. - Humans as Trouble Dog sees us
Fleet of Knives (Embers of War #2) - Gareth L. Powell,Natasha Soudek,Nicol Zanzarella,Joe Hempel,Amy Landon,Soneela Nankani

I love the way Trouble Dog, the intelligent ship, now fifteen years old and already with a long history of combat, analyses humans as if they were another puzzle offered by the universe and then delivers her conclusions with a dry humour that takes some of the sting out of her accuracy.

 

At one point, after a frustrating exchange with a crew member, Captain Konstanz asks Trouble Dog's avatar why people are so difficult to manage. Trouble Dog raises an eyebrow and says:

 

"That's a question I've been pondering since my inception."

 

"And your conclusion?"

 

"I think you're all broken in some fundamental way but you're not all broken in the same place and it's the ways you find to work around those breaks that make you who you are."

 

Now there's an idea to chew on.

 

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text 2019-07-14 01:34
Reading progress update: I've read 15%. - let's start by tackling death
Fleet of Knives (Embers of War #2) - Gareth L. Powell,Natasha Soudek,Nicol Zanzarella,Joe Hempel,Amy Landon,Soneela Nankani

The best science fiction takes on the big themes. "Fleet Of Knives" jumps straight in to one of the biggest: Death.

 

It opens with Sal Konstanz on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine to honour her fallen dead. She reflects on how their actions in "Embers Of War" left her feeling like a murderer for having killed a man, albeit to save others and how Trouble Dog had been forced to kill one of her siblings to avoid being killed herself.

 

It's brave to start a book two of a space opera trilogy with an introspective piece contemplating the nature of honour but it's that focus that sets the series apart.

 

In Chapter Two we get Ona Sudak, convicted of genocide and awaiting execution, talking to a preacher about death and saying:

 

"I've seen men and women die in ways so brutal and horrific that you probably can't even begin to imagine them and I'll tell you this: I've seen nothing to convince me that we're anything more than meat and bone and sinew."

 

I tap the side of my head.

 

"We live in here, beneath this cap of bone and there's nothing else. No emergency escape hatch that whisks us to heaven, no undying ghost that leaps from our mouth when the bullets enter our cranium

 

I turned back to the window with an angry shrug.

 

"When you're dead, you're dead. There's no afterlife, no white light, just darkness, oblivion and an endless eternity of non-existence."

 

Well, that matches my view on the world but I don't think I've seen it in Science Fiction before.

 

 In Chapter Three we get Trouble Dog, the Raptor Class Battle Cruiser with an AI grown from human stem cells, contemplating the death of the soldier her stem cells were harvested from and finds herself unable to the grieve. I love her conclusion:

 

"As an engine of war. I'm not designed to ponder mortality, only enforce it."

 

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