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For some reason, the publication of the eighth novel in the Expanse cycle in March totally went past me, so I only read it now. The book picks off a few years after Book 7, in which the Laconians conquered the known galaxy and James Holden was taken captive by High Consul Duarte. As we check back in, Naomi is a vital figure in the Underground's leadership cadre, Bobby commands a stolen Laconian destroyer (piloted by Alex), and Amos is MIA on a mission to Laconia, where he was supposed to plant a Nuke but has since missed every evacuation window. Holden remains a captive of Laconia.
The story is told from five POV characters perspectives: Naomi, Elvi, Alex, Bobby and, new to the mix, Duarte's daughter Theresa. Without going too much into spoilers, the plot covers a scientific mission of Elvi's that's supposed to research anomalies in the weirder ring systems, several terrorist attacks carried out by Bobby and Alex, Naomi's struggle with the ultimate goal of the resistance and how to achieve it and Theresa's development as the teenage daughter of the new Empire's God King. In two chapters, we get an intermission from Holden's viewpoint, but in general, for the first time, the man remains aloof and closed to us.
It's not exactly a secret that the two authors behind the alias of James S. A. Corey are friends of George R. R. Martin's and owe at least part of their writing success - which has branched out into a TV series that was saved from oblivion by Expanse-fanboy number one, Jeff Bezos - to this acquaintance.
The influences are unmistakable. It begins with the POV structure that's lifted directly from "A Song of Ice and Fire" and continues into the gritty, at times almost grimdark setting and the, let's say, morally challenged characters. Even the general plot outline borrows from the original, with the danger of an old, almost eternal and not understood force (the Others, basically) rearing it's ugly head only now in the 8th novel, where the "game of thrones" before served as distraction and to fatally weaken humanity in the face of its coming onslaught.
However, if "The Expanse" proves one thing, then it's that having a successful recipe doesn't mean you can recreate it easily. The same problems that have plagued the series from its inception are coming back with a vengeance in this novel as well, and the root of all the problems can be summed up in two words: prose and characters.
Prose first. James S. A. Corey simply aren't anywhere near the level that George R. R. Martin writes on. This is apparent when it comes to descriptions of things, which not only get repetitive but are, at times, almost excruciating. It's the worst when it comes to dialogue, though.
The things the characters say are painfully obvious. There is practically no subtext. All motivations are spelled out, directly talking at each other. The same is true of the descriptions of the inner monologue the characters experience that oftentimes serves only as a mouthpiece for political or philosophical ideas.
This is something of a science-fiction tradition. Bad dialogue laden with ideas, spouted at each other or in the form of inner monologue at the reader, is rife in the genre. But it seriously weighs down the whole experience.
And it leads to point two, the characters. It has always been a problem of The Expanse that its characters, especially the secondary cast, weren't all that interesting. Bobby is a Marine. Alex is a Pilot. Amos is the Heavy Weapons Guy. Only Holden and Naomi have more facets to them, but they remain a cipher more often than not.
In this novel, these problems go into overdrive, as Naomi has a rather weird plot about becoming the chief of the resistance whereas Holden is a cryptic sage on Laconia, who knows things because he has to and does and says weird, random shit. The whole secondary cast of characters like Elvi and Theresa don't have any personality at all, just fig leaves in place of it.
However , "The Expanse" still isn't all bad, or else I wouldn't have made it into book eight. Its main strength is that it's interesting on two levels. The first is the plot, the second is the worldbuilding.
In regards to the plot, the political and military machinations are very well thought out and are full of exciting dynamics. Everything makes sense without being predictable, and there are stakes to everything.
But where "The Expanse" really shines is in the worldbuilding. The universe it creates, especially the solar system, is gripping and fascinating, and its brand of "realism, but not enough so that it ruins a good story" is the best-working parallel to Martin's brand of "deconstruction" of its genre.
I was very skeptical about the story branching out more into science-fantasy and opening up to different systems (over 1300, to be exact), with the precursors and enemy aliens and all that, but it neatly fits with the tone established in the first novels and feels like an organic continuation and escalation rather than a convenience.
Therefore, if you've read "The Expanse" until that point, there's no reason to stop now, even though the novel definitely is one of the weaker ones, together with book four. I personally want to know how the story ends, that's for certain, and I will suffer the weaknesses for the good stuff.