Sci-Fi Review: ‘Caliban’s War’ by James S A Corey

May contain spoilers for ‘Leviathan Wakes’.

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. [Originally published on Goodreads June 2012]

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood

The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

Fantasy Review: ‘The Last Stormlord’ by Glenda Larke

The Last Stormlord (Watergivers, #1)Nathan’s review:

A great read can show up unexpectedly.  Browsing shelves of a used book store this review took a chance on a book by an author he had never heard of.  1/3 in, a new love is discovered.

Something of a Dune vibe, water is king and everything revolves around it.  The only water available is the undrinkable sea, moved and purified to the cities on the loam by Stormlords.  At the time of the book, the world is down to one man with this power, and his time is running short.

Though never gratuitous with the violence, the author can be brutal at times.  A high death count and lack of hope is seen throughout the narrative.  Traditional trappings are avoided though, the young girl raised to be a prostitute takes a different path than expected, people with revenge on their mind actually refrain from going on a rampage, etc.

The main character, Shale, grows with the story.  Terelle seems to lose “screen time” as the story progresses, but has a great story growing that is hopefully expanded on in the second book.  The various secondary characters are a strength, with completely different motives, they are not repetitive nor cliche.

Really impressive, 4.5 stars.  A new favorite, and here is hoping the series continues to excite.

Pros:  Great world building, strong support characters, entertaining story.

Cons: Some lag in the middle, the politics of the land are not as well done as other areas of the book, some questions on why food is never in short supply when water is.
Pauline’s review:

This is one of those books that bobbed up somewhere while I was idly trawling through Goodreads and discussion groups, so I have no idea who recommended it. Whoever it was – you have my thanks! I loved this book. Right from the first page I was drawn into it and the magic never let go. It is (inevitably) the first part of a trilogy, so plenty more story to go.
The book is set in a desert environment where every aspect of life is governed by the availability or lack of water, and society is divided into those who have it and live comfortably, and those who don’t and have to grub around on the margins to survive. Interestingly, there are other parts of the world where water is abundant, but nothing more is revealed about why that should be. Although there are similarities with ‘Dune’, this is a work of fantasy, so there is magic at work – some people have the ability to sense or move water, and a very few (the stormlord of the title) can draw water from the sea into clouds to create rainstorms where they are needed. Only one stormlord remains, and he is old and sick. His death will plunge the land under his care into crisis.
This background is beautifully created. The author has thought carefully about the possible lifestyles and likely forms of animal life in such a precarious world, and developed them brilliantly. The pedes and ziggers, dayjars and reeves, the multi-level cities with their water-traders and snuggeries – all are believable and evocative. The reader is instantly immersed, with foreign terminolgy scattered about everywhere. Many authors do this just to be cute or clever, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. All the terms were either readily understandable (not hard to guess what a pede is) or were soon explained. I liked the dialects for the different regions, too, which were well-defined and credible. Even the swearing had local colour. The names were in keeping, even if often unpronouncable (Taquar? Moiqa? Nealrith?), but this is a bit of a fantasy convention.
The plot is nicely developed. The threat of impending catastrophe should the last stormlord die, and the likely consequences, are laid out right from the start and the tension builds steadily to the inevitable disaster. Everything that happens feels logical , and the motivations of the characters are always understandable. The author has a nice way of disclosing key information, so that the reader works it out just a satisfying moment or two before the reveal, without unnecessary cliff-hangers or overblown drama. The author is also very good about repeating essential details just at the point where it might become puzzling. This makes it really easy to keep track of what’s going on and why. And the action just rolls along so that you have to keep turning the pages – that ‘just one more chapter’ effect.
The main characters are generally complex enough to be interesting. The bad guys are perhaps a little too evil to be credible, but the others are very much drawn in shades of grey. Terelle and Shale have both had difficult childhoods, but the effects of that are not overdone – it gave them depth rather than making them into caricature hero/heroine figures fighting back from adversity. Taquar was interesting, too, and I would have liked to know a little bit more about him. I also liked Kaneth and Ryka – their relationship felt totally believable. The squabbling amongst the various rainlords over how to deal with the situation, and the difficult decisions faced by decent people in impossible situations is beautifully done.
I loved the magic system. The idea of sensing water and moving it about at will is a beguiling one. I find myself looking at clouds now and thinking – if only… The author has devised some very clever applications of it – ways of killing, for instance, or surviving underwater. The water painting is obviously a related form of magic, but is not well developed so far. Presumably it will become more significant in the later books.
One aspect I particularly liked is that Terelle and Shale, while encountering their various difficulties, regularly received help from complete strangers – just normal people behaving decently to fellow human beings. There are too many fantasies around these days which focus unrelievedly on humanity’s dark side and it’s nice to find a more balanced portrayal.
My only complaint, such as it is, is that the death toll in the final battle was rather high amongst the named characters. The unwashed masses always die in droves, of course, but I like to see most of the significant characters survive, especially as there are still two more volumes to go. But it’s a small quibble.
This is not a particularly original book in many ways, but it’s good, solid fantasy which I found enjoyable at every level. It has unusually good world-building and an excellent magic system, with a nicely worked plot, believable characters and a down-to-earth writing style which I liked very much. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. Four stars. [Originally posted on Goodreads August 2011]The ‘Watergivers’ series consists of:
The Last Stormlord
Stormlord Rising
Stormlord’s Exile


2012 October | Fantasy Review Barn

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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Fantasy Review: ‘Servant of the Underworld’ by Alliete de Bodard

Note: This very short review was posted to Goodreads before the blog was live.  I know it is brief, but hated having a review of the second book without  review of the first.  I therefore added it only for continuity … Continue reading

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Fantasy Review: ‘Servant of the Underworld’ by Alliete de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood, #1)Note: This very short review was posted to Goodreads before the blog was live.  I know it is brief, but hated having a review of the second book without  review of the first.  I therefore added it only for continuity sakes. 

Surprisingly accessible, despite dealing with a lesser known pantheon of gods. A first person murder mystery that morphs into a fuller story. The main character broods a bit too much on his past, but is likable, and has realistic interactions, both with mortals and gods(Gods are real, and part of the world here). The supporting characters are fleshed out, with their own stories in the background.

Politics are interesting, as is the use of religion. The author makes zero attempt to cover up the brutality of the religion, nor is there any attempt to put a western morality spin on it, sacrifice is part of the world, period.

Few complaints. Use of a modern idiom stuck out(but only once), and a semi-let down when it came to the reasoning behind the main characters brooding.

Quick paced, fun, well researched(or faked well), and completely unique. Recommended, and here is hoping the next two books in the series are just as enjoyable.

4 stars
Followed by:
Harbinger of the Storm
Master of the House of Darts

Series Review