James S.A. Corey is the pen name of the two principle writing assistants of a fantasy author you may have heard of . . . George R. R. Martin. This explains the glowing cover quote from the Game of Thrones author on this Sci-Fi epic, billed as the first installment of The Expanse series. It also explains the expansive scope and meandering pace of this story, which is trying to be the Game of Thrones space opera. Don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty well-written book and the basic story is compelling. It’s just that the authors don’t seem to know when to stop writing, or when to edit out a scene, and they end up with a 600-page monster that would have been much better at 400 pages. It’s fine if you have a lot of extra time to kill and don’t mind reading a lot (a LOT) of filler and backstory and detail that is really not needed. It’s a good read, but could have been much better.
The entire book is written in alternating chapters from the points of view of Miller – a police detective who ends up a rogue agent – and Holden – the second in command of an ice freighter who is pressed into the captain’s chair and ends up leading the most important mission in the history of the solar system. I’m guessing that the two authors each took one character’s point-of-view and each of them wrote effectively a full novel, which was then meshed together. For the first half of the book, the two stories are separate, but headed in the same direction. About half-way through, Miller and Holden arrive in the same place and the stories run parallel, but still alternating between the two POVs. It more or less works, but if you want to cut down on the reading time, you can skip Miller’s story entirely and just read Holden’s saga up to the point where the two storylines merge.
The universe created here is interesting. Far in the future, there is a war simmering between Mars (colonized eons earlier) and Earth. Father out in the solar system, the pioneers living on the asteroid belt between Saturn and Jupiter are staging a kind of rebel uprising, seeking more independence. Meanwhile, large corporate interests, mostly arising from Earth, are vying for economic control. It’s all very complex, with massive military build-ups, ships, commerce vessels, and where oxygen is at a premium. The politics are murky, but not really important to the main story. The big picture – obscured until the second half of the book – involves civilian interests who are manipulating the governments and who have a sinister plan based on an alien life form. I won’t spoil anything, but suffice to say that it’s big on all levels.
The main story has sufficient action, intrigue, and emotion to sustain the book. There are several subplots, including a romance between Holden and his next in command and long-time space companion. It’s at times a distraction, but at other times a nice respite from the space battles. Miller’s obsession with the fate of Julie, a girl whose kidnapping he was investigating before he got tossed off the force, is also a big subplot that comes around in the end. Julie is ethe star of the opening teaser chapter, although that scene is truly a teaser.
The Good: The story is complex and requires attention and keeps you thinking. The action sequences are plentiful and well-written. There are some wonderful descriptions, including a description about how drugs and sex are cheap out in the “Belt” – but real cheese made from real Earth milk fetches a fortune on the black market. The world-building is great here, and there are a host of side characters who are well-drawn and provide entertaining scenes.
The Bad: There is too much description and filler that is just not needed. There are scenes that go on for pages where nothing much happens that is important to the story. If this were a movie, an editor would cut them easily – because while they are lovely, they don’t advance the plot or any subplot meaningfully. About three-quarters in, there is a big invasion sequence that seems to be the climax of the story, but it’s not. Then there is a long (LONG) stretch where the characters explain what the real final mission will be, followed by a long lead-up. Most of this could be cut also. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say that it left me a bit disappointed that of all the action sequences, it was not the best and left me a bit flat in the end. Not bad, but could have been better.
That’s really the theme here. This is a good book. It could have been better. George R.R. Martin and his team have been wildly successful with epic-scope books of great length, so why not perpetuate that in this sci-fi series, right? I’m sure this will be similarly successful, which will only encourage them to do it again. Too bad – it could have been better.