NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the first two books in The Expanse series. If you want a pristine reading experience of this series, please do not read this review until you are ready to start Abaddon’s Gate.
In the third installment of James S. A. Corey’s mega science fiction epic series, The Expanse, the stakes get even higher.
Not that a billions-of-years-old alien virus that has destroyed a moon, overtaken the planet Venus and has mutated thousands of humans into organisms and structures that scientists can only speculate on needs much ratcheting up. But in this thrilling, occasionally graceful and sometimes humorous installment of The Expanse series, the proto-virus has done something dramatically new: it has suddenly shot out from Venus to establish a “Ring” just outside of the orbit of Uranus. Within this Ring appears to be some sort of Gate that presumably leads back to the virus’s system of origin. But an initial, foolhardy attempt to breech the Ring leads to a disastrous result, and a sketchy caution between the three political powers – Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) – keeps the scientific and military ships that have congregated outside the Ring at bay.
Following the template laid out in Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, the core characters of Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have returned, now out of the limelight and in semi-retirement, acting merely as couriers for hire in order to keep flying. But it isn’t too long before they get unwillingly caught up in the political turmoil that simmers under wraps following the action of Caliban’s War. Strategically contracted to transport a documentary crew out to the Ring, they unwittingly fly into a personal vendetta that has them once again not only at the center of the action, but as catalysts in the events to follow.
As with the other books in the series, Abaddon’s Gate balances some very strong “guest stars” in this “episode”, allowing the reader through their points of view to not only be a party to conspiracy but also to remain anchored to a more naive perspective. They include:
- Carlos c de Baca – or “Bull” as he is better known – is the security chief on the hulking OPA battle cruiser Behemoth. He tries to keep the knowledge that he was passed over for second in command because he was born on Earth (although he has worked in the Belt for more than half his life) to keep from affecting his performance. For all its impressive size and bristling weaponry, the Behemoth is a “retrofitted piece of crap”, too rapidly pressed into service when the Ring appeared off Uranus, and its captain is a decorated jackass. But Bull was assigned to the ship because OPA brass knows he can get to job done, regardless – and that’s what he intends to do, even though the job becomes far more than what anyone would have bargained for.
- Annushka Volovodov, or Pastor Anna to her congregation on Europa, is a compassionate, literate, kind hearted yet realistic Methodist minister who isn’t afraid to use a tazer when the situation demands it. She is traveling to the Ring as part of the United Nation’s humanitarian committee project, to help balance the military presence there – and to possibly witness what lies beyond the known solar system. Despite personal sacrifices she has to make to be part of the project, she feels compelled to be a witness to and a counselor for those facing the unknown. Little does she know just how important her presence – and her faith – will turn out to be in the days ahead.
- Melba – not Clarissa, Melba – is a wild card, in the most chilling sense of the word. While all other eyes are focused outward, towards the Ring, hers are turned inward on her own perceived indignities, which may harbor an even greater threat than a gateway into the unknown.
And while other “guest stars” from the previous books, such as Martian marine Bobbie Draper and United Nations Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala are mere shadowy mentions in Abaddon’s Gate, some of the previous characters, even though they may no longer be considered among the living, continue to have a catalytic affect on the fate of mankind (and that is not a hyperbole).
For a space opera, Abaddon’s Gate is somewhat subdued, more so than the preceding two volumes. Its action is more specifically pinpointed at a singular place in the solar system rather than far reaching activities spread out across multiple locations. There is also a fair amount of philosophizing, especially along religious lines, but nothing crosses over into the pedantic. (I, in fact, was very taken with some of the passages in the book, finding them incredibly beautiful and evocative.) But there are also plenty of explosions and battling to keep it intense. The stakes are indeed high.
Anna saw gangly Belters helping offload wounded Earthers from emergency carts, plugging in IVs and other medical equipment, fluffing pillows and mopping brows. Inners and outers offloaded crates in mixed groups without comment. Anna couldn’t help but be warmed by that, even in the face of their recent disaster. Maybe it took real tragedy to get them all working together, but it did. They did. There was hope in that.
Now if they could just figure out how to do it without the blood and screaming.
And, as with Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, while immediate situations may come to a conclusion, the over-arching storyline expands, gains dimension and opens up so many possibilities for the next book. There are not really cliffhangers, but neither are there codas. Once you finish Abaddon’s Gate, you have a sense of satisfaction, but also anticipation – which is exactly the way it should be.
On to the next book in the series – Cibola Burn!