I don't read a lot of scifi these days, although it was my drug of choice for a decade or more, but I love Daniel Abraham's fantasy works so this is a must-read for me. Written under a pseudonym with co-author Ty Franck, this is the second in the Expanse series. If the first had a sort of detective-noir feel to it, this one is much more classic space-opera, with space ships, inter-planetary alliances, zero-gravity battles, hi-tech weaponry and all the usual shenanigans, and although there is a bit of a mystery to solve, it's no more than backdrop for the action. I suppose a lot of scifi falls into the traditional grooves, and this one feels like it's made from the Firefly cookie cutter. Holden is the renegade captain (Mal), Alex the ace pilot (Wash without the dinosaurs), Naomi is Zoe and Amos is Jayne. There's even a Kaylee, Sam the red-headed pixie on Tycho, but thank all the gods, there's no lipsticky Inara.
Holden is the sole point of view character retained for this outing; Miller, the shoot first forget the questions cop, was.... hmm, eaten by? killed by? absorbed by? the alien monster thingy in part one. We have three new main characters; Avasarala is an elderly diplomat from Earth, Prax is the botanist from the moon Ganymede, and Bobbie is the marine from Mars (sorry, just can't say Martian marine, sounds too weird). These soon coalesce into two pairs and eventually overlap, and the authors manage to sweep the plot forward by deftly swapping from one to another. All four are interesting, well-drawn characters, and the minor characters are likeable too, especially Holden's crew. Prax comes in handy for the sciencey bits, while Avasarala is pulling the political strings of the complex tensions between Earth, Mars, big business and the outer planets. And Bobbie? She makes one hell of a warrior babe, that's all I can say.
The book seemed slow to get going, I thought. There was a lot of scene-setting and general background that wasn't exactly filler, but didn't seem to get very far, but to be fair, there are several new characters and a heap of backstory to get across. But almost imperceptibly the pace picks up and then we're off into the usual action-packed whirlwind. There were a few creaky moments, when the rationale for a character to do something obviously essential for the plot seemed a bit dubious, but really, it doesn't matter much. And just occasionally, when they do something completely and utterly in character, it feels absolutely punch-the-air glorious.
Although this is sci-fi, the technology is really not the point. It's obvious that a great deal of research has been done behind the scenes, but it very rarely breaks out into impenetrable jargon, and even when it does, there is usually another character there to say, on the reader's behalf, what does that mean, exactly? But none of it stretches credulity overmuch, and for me, as a fantasy fan, it's no problem to accept the high-tech 'magic' of instant wound-repairing medical equipment or fancy weaponry, in the same way I accept wizards with healing spells, or a magic sword. The nature of the setting also lends itself to some very atmospheric moments peculiar to space opera - the zero-gravity bounces, the weird moons, the outside-the-ship moments, the sheer scale of the universe - which the authors convey very well.
My biggest complaint would be that too much of the plot hinges on finding and recovering unharmed Prax's small daughter, Mei. Given the interstellar nature of the conflict and the countless unnamed minions who died along the way, it seems unrealistic to devote so much effort to one child. I appreciate the need to humanise the conflict, but it still seems excessive. There also seemed to be a lot of emphasis on individuals who got close to mental breakdown, either by highly stressed circumstances, or lack of sleep, or just personality. I'm not quite sure what purpose this served, except to ramp up the tension a bit. But these are small points.
The ending fell a little flat for me, seeming to be no more than a sequence of high tension encounters which were actually resolved very quickly, without any unexpected twists or great drama. The authors are very good at not spinning the action sequences out too far, but these felt almost abrupt. There were a few moments of near Galaxy-Quest-ness, but it's hard to write this kind of stuff without evoking parody, and the authors deftly sidestepped the worst of it. And the dramatic reveal in the final paragraphs was hardly unpredictable - well, if I could see it coming, anyone could.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed most of the book, up until the last few chapters, even more than the previous one in the series. I liked Bobbie the marine, I liked the little romance Holden had going, I liked seeing more of Amos, Alex and Naomi (who make a great team), and Avasarala had all the best lines. The writing is taut, the pacing is perfect, and the authors ping-pong the plot between points of view effortlessly. And no, I have no idea who wrote which characters. A good entertaining read with plenty of action and a few moments of real depth lurking beneath all the drama. Four stars.