Thoughts on Caliban’s War & Abaddon’s Gate

A while back I started a much-hyped scifi series by James S. A. Corey, an author duo, and somewhat enjoyed the first book. I happened to like the second book, Caliban’s War, much better, but never got the chance to remark on it in a review. I just this week had to give up on the third book, Abaddon’s Gate, so I’m taking the opportunity now while that’s (unfortunately) fresh in my mind to loosely review the rest of this series. I also have no idea if this is meant to be a trilogy, the beginning of some offshoots or a continuance of the original three books, but I do know book three has successfully cauterized me from any further interest.

I won’t go back over what my issues were with book one, Leviathan Wakes, in great detail. You can read all about that here. I do remember enjoying it somewhat because of its earie space horror atmosphere, what with the ever increasing horror of the protomolecule on Eros Station. Caliban’s War managed to keep this sickening atmosphere going. Not that readers will discover anything at all more concrete than book one revealed of the ancient alien artifact, but things do move along somewhat. Enough to keep the interest going on those aspects. Caliban’s War also manages to seriously improve on the whole character development angle, and not just with characters like Holden and the crew he works with on their stolen Martian corvette ship, but we get introduced to a few more. And they’re not just men. That’s right, the authors actually bring it with some really interesting, well-done lady characters, most notably the confused and politically entangled and torn Martian soldier, Bobby, and the Earth politician Crisjen Avasarala. While we waited (and waited and waited some more) to see any real movement along the alien front line with the protomolecule’s occupation of Venus, at least we had these two character’s development to keep us entertained.

Although, in some ways I must continue to address the odd way lady characters are treated so far in this series. There’s the fact that Naomi, the supposedly brilliant engineer aboard Holden’s ship, is still only his “girlfriend”. As in the first book, she’s merely there to be Holden’s moral compass. Emphasis continues to be placed on how over qualified she is to remain with the crew, and potential to expand her beyond a prop is again lost in Caliban’s War. I simply don’t understand the need to assure readers in a sideways manner that she’s a smart, extremely capable person, yet she gets little to no voice of her own outside of Holden’s thoughts and POV.

Then there are the sexual issues with Bobby’s character. She’s described as an almost manly woman, the type of female soldier who is very dedicated, and physically speaking, muscular and powerful, with all the personality one might relegate to a male soldier of equal training and fortitude. OK, I have no problem with this. So she’s really big. And tall. And strong. Sounds great to me – are we saying the future military of Mars fully accepts and integrates female soldiers? Uh, maybe not when we must still read them from the perspective of 21st century minds. What I don’t get was the constant need to underline her character with sexual references, showing how irresistibly attractive she is to just about every other male around her that has any iota of an important role. And I have no problem believing she’s attractive – I just didn’t need to be TOLD she is by making said males drool around her all the time. And this usually when the action and tension was high and it really wasn’t the time any normal person would be contemplating what it would be like to bone the manly woman who is in large part saving their asses. It never flowed well in the story, and in fact it was pretty annoying when Holden himself gets flustered sexually more than once in her presence. I suppose Naomi felt even more like a prop at that point, since he’s, you know, boning her. Like I needed any more reason to like Holden less. His self-important idiotic actions do that quite well enough.

That being said, when the women of these books aren’t being ignored in favor of painfully embarrassing males with bad superhero complexes, Caliban’s War brings out a much more enjoyable story than book one. Or, it continues what evolved from book one nicely. There’s just the right amount of alien action to counterbalance the rather weighty moral and political issues that come with corporations trying to harvest an alien weapon, and the out-of-control alien response that results. In all this time we have the blunt and brilliant tactics of politician Crisjen Avasalara to thank for most of the entertainment. She’s a no-holds-barred ball buster to be sure and she takes exactly zero crap from anybody. She’s sees through every lie and move everyone makes and while this sounds dangerously close to Political Mary Sue of the Series, it was actually refreshing to see a character who could do all this when the rest of the book is filled with question after question and a rather slow development. Caliban’s War ended with a huge promise of more such entertainment to come and I felt it ended with an entertaining high.

Abbadon’s Gate is an entirely opposite story.

I’ll make this short. It sucked.

To make it slightly longer, if you’re looking for any inkling of a resolution to the alien protomolecule, the weapon it eventually builds and what results from all of that in book two, you’ll pretty much not get it. Or at least, I wasn’t satisfied. Look, it’s aliens. Of which humanity has never yet met in this book. They’ve reached for the stars and now with the advent of an alien threat they could possibly be reaching even further. Who the heck wouldn’t find that compelling? The previous books certainly set it up in a thrilling manner. Slow as damn molasses, but still thrilling. By the time I got a few measly chapters from the end of book 3, though, I just didn’t care anymore.

This book was almost mind numbingly boring. Bobby and Chrisjen don’t make any further appearances, so we’re left with Holden, his crew and – oh wait, a whole fleet of Martian, Earth and OPA (an organization built out of the Belter space settlers) who think they’re going to keep anything from escalating at the giant gate ring thing that the alien protomolecule built. We also get a ship full of religious representatives from pretty much all human religious organizations. This should have been my first clue what the true direction of the series was. Man’s moral and religious significance in such a scenario. Maybe my first clue should have been that this has been done over and over again with other books, actually. Sigh. I’m not saying this can’t be done well, I’m just saying it wasn’t done well in this book. It was boring. And monotonous. There are somewhat promising beginnings with Anna, a female priest who unfortunately takes on a rather naive role later on, her snappy friend Tilly and even the OPA chief of Security, Bull. Just when the action starts to pick up and characters begin to get more interesting, they also get just a shade too cardboard and predictable.

The writing has its moments of true glory, but it’s bogged down by an incessant need to info dump and take internal dialogue and action scenes into strangely long (and I mean incredibly way too long) sequences that do nothing to keep reader interest going. It was about two thirds into the book that I couldn’t take it anymore and found myself skimming before I even realized it. The book’s cover has a quote with something to the effect of it being like a Hollywood blockbuster movie and the only way I could agree with that is if they mean how badly Hollywood tends to treat its scifi films. Much like the glorious thrills and promises of the Alien movie franchise, this series too knows what it’s like to slowly crash and burn to a useless crisp.

Final thoughts: great cover art.

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