We readers can be a cruel, vicious pack of jackals, sniffing out a novel's flaws with a singular, Darwinian determination - honing in ruthlessly on the padded protagonist; the fictional filler; the cornflour of creativity. We hate that juddering lurch where a clanging InfoDump forces your eye to reflexively skip a bunch of paragraphs, or when the Enter Stage Left of a Prêt à Cliché stock character snaps you out of the fragile, euphoric equilibrium of the Lost Reader's Trance and back to the tedious reality of the Starbucks, the commuter train, the suburban sofa. Well, with Caliban's War, James Corey* will never face our scavenger pack with its bloodlust up. Instead he has us cowed and docile - apex author-predator benevolently marionetting our emotional involvement with a tight, high-quality, highly-plausible near-future space opera. Caliban's War picks up shortly after the conclusion of Leviathan Wakes - this is definitely the second in the series rather than a standalone work - read them in order. Earth coexists uneasily with both a terraformed and powerful Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance, the fault lines between these societies no different from now - energy, food, political power and belief. The science fiction here comes from The Protomolecule - an entity introduced early in Leviathan Wakes and still very much part of the universe this sequel inhabits.
Chapter by chapter, Corey steadily introduces his dramatis personae - tossing them godlike into their individual, but very separate orbits - some circular and predictable, others elliptical and ranging, or marginal, degrading, failing. Our author's creations possess the patina of authenticity - we believe in Corey's Shellshocked Marine, his Desperate Father, his Lost Idealist, his Weary Politician. As this mini solar system of players emerges, we readers know their orbits now have to either align or collide - can you do it without raising our hackles James?
He can - clause by sentence, paragraph by chapter - bait, switch, smoke and mirrors - throwing us a juicy plot tidbit occasionally to occupy us whilst he adjusts, nudges and synchronises the characters' rotations until they meet and segue ready for the plot to entwine them into a single, driving narrative arc**. It's very nicely done - there's only one "coincidence too far" where a lead character from Leviathan Wakes stumbles across and then accepts an unlikely odyssey involving a lost child. But, be clear - one misstep doesn't detract from Caliban's War's overall feel of taut quality.
That's taut rather than lean - there's fat where it's needed - juicy marbling adding texture and the impossible paradox of what tastes like reality to a fictional future. OK, we do have the Epstein Fusion Drive for interplanetary travel, but forget the clean isometric electric blue streaks of NCC-1701's transition into warp speed. No, here we have acceleration couches, sedatives and amphetamines - a visceral physical cost to every increment of outer space acceleration and braking - If not hard sci-fi, this is certainly al dente.
So we get hollowed-out moons with elegant closed-loop ecosystems of artificial sunlight and hydroponic bays breathing life into icy tunnels - brittle rather than fragile - resilient within their bounds, but only so far and no more - after that there is just The Cascade, an unstoppable momentum towards collapse, a biological concept beautifully described and then metaphorically mated to our protagonists' inner and outer journeys.
And we have short, vibrantly described combat - atmospheric even in the vacuum of space, adversaries fighting Newtonian force and reaction as much as their enemies. I've tried and failed to enjoy most military science fiction, frustrated by the extended fetishisation of battle scenes which just end up boring me, but Corey judges the tempo and length perfectly here, and even in the large scale, truly space-operatic confrontations of thousands, the human cost of loss is preserved.
This is not a gloomy novel though - throughout, cobalt-dark humour abounds, perfectly in context with both character and situation - wisecracks worn lightly and cadenced nicely rather than trowelled on crudely.
So, yes, Caliban's War is a successful sequel and well worth your time and money. But, where did that missing star go from my verdict?. Why four and not five?
Well, I get this is part of a series, but particularly in the first half of the novel, there are a few too many similarities and echoes when you put the plot x-rays of Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War side-by-side on the literary lightbox - I wanted more difference between the two but didn't quite get it.
Also, there's one annoyingly implausible "single human takes on battleship and doesn't get smeared over the windscreen in the first five seconds but instead advances the plot perfectly" lurch which contrasts poorly with the rest of the novel's believability.
Oh, and I cannot decide if this...
... is genius or if the author needs to be taken outside and spoken to sternly. Time will tell...
I'm actually a little worried to hear that those responsible for Caliban's War have been contracted to write something like nine of these - it's difficult to see how this quality can be maintained, but it'll be fun to find out...
*For the purposes of his review i'm going with the fiction that James Corey exists - it's easier that way (for me anyway).
**I think I just converted an orbit into an arc within a crumbling mixed metaphor there - if that doesn't put me onto the hit list of some murky right wing literary physicists' death squad, then nothing will...