Orbit Books, 2017, 608 pages
In the thousand-sun network of humanity's expansion, new colony worlds are struggling to find their way. Every new planet lives on a knife edge between collapse and wonder, and the crew of the aging gunship Rocinante have their hands more than full keeping the fragile peace.
In the vast space between Earth and Jupiter, the inner planets and belt have formed a tentative and uncertain alliance still haunted by a history of wars and prejudices. On the lost colony world of Laconia, a hidden enemy has a new vision for all of humanity and the power to enforce it.
New technologies clash with old as the history of human conflict returns to its ancient patterns of war and subjugation. But human nature is not the only enemy, and the forces being unleashed have their own price. A price that will change the shape of humanity -- and of the Rocinante -- unexpectedly and forever...
It has to be hard writing volume after volume of a saga with no end in sight without making them start to become tedious and repetitive. I've read a lot of long series that didn't manage it. James S.A. Corey (pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) learned writing from George R.R. Martin, who apparently is pretty good at it (although I confess I haven't read the Game of Thrones books). But with the Expanse series, they do face the problem of how to keep escalating the threat level in each book without it becoming a parade of Big Bads to be defeated, and so far they've managed by continuously expanding the scope of the Expanse universe. In book one, humans were confined to Earth's solar system and the problem was a renegade colony ship-turned-asteroid-colony which got infected by an alien "proto-molecule," the result being basically a zombie apocalypse in space.
Since then, the politics of the solar system have shifted, there have been several wars, they've discovered gates to other star systems, allowing humanity to expand to the stars, and through it all, James Holden and the Rocinante have always managed to be in the middle of whatever trouble is brewing. So as mankind is colonizing the stars, it's inevitable that someone decides to build an empire and go for Earth.
There's an old truism that the best form of government would be a benevolent dictatorship. The problem being that the worst form of government is a non-benevolent dictatorship, and once you have a dictatorship, you don't get to choose which you get.
I've enjoyed all the Expanse books, but this one may be one of my favorites in the series, which is no mean feat for volume number seven. I liked it because the villain actually made me think about whose side I'd be on if I were a citizen of the Expanse universe. Philosophically, we know that of course anyone setting himself up to be a (literally) immortal emperor needs to be taken down on principal alone. And Winston Duarte, the former Martian officer who discovered a superweapon on a lost colony world and is about to take over the galaxy (or at least the human-occupied fraction of a percent of it) is not a particularly nice man. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to be an evil man either, and his Laconian Empire, so far, is perhaps the most humane, well-disciplined, and just force of conquering imperialists mankind has ever seen. It's hard to argue that they're not considerably better at running things than Earth, Mars, the Inner Planets, or the Outer Planets Alliance. You could almost see the Laconian Empire becoming a well-oiled conquering machine that spreads out into the stars bringing prosperity and order to the galaxy, with the full support of its citizenry.
Of course we haven't seen Duarte really take off his gloves yet, and there is that niggling little detail that having encountered an alien protomolecule that ended a starfaring civilization that went extinct before humanity was born, Duarte's solution is to turn it into a weapon and go looking for what did it in. This might make one a little less confident that we want to root for Team Duarte and the Laconian Empire.
Most of the book is about Laconian ambitions and the slowly unveiling dread the rest of human space experiences as they realize that the Laconian Empire has a weapon that makes their ships unstoppable. In short order, they have invaded Earth's solar system and forced most of it to surrender. But much of the book takes place on our old friend, that Mormon-carved hunk of rock that introduced the series, now a space station and a staging area for the Laconian Empire. Here, a Laconian officer named Singh is introduced as a secondary character in charge of the subjugated former-belters, who promptly begin resisting the way belters do. When we keep getting lengthy interludes where Singh misses his wife and little girl, where Singh is sickened by violence, frightened by assassination attempts, unnerved by events that test his fortitude and which he constantly fears are making him look weak and inept (because he is), I knew exactly what the authors were doing. They were setting him up to become a self-made monster. But I admit I did not foresee the twist at the end.
In the midst of all the chaos, of course, is James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Everyone is together now - James Holden, Naomi, Alex, Amos, Bobby Draper, and Clarissa Mao. They join the resistance, but their role is actually relatively minor even if they do take up a lot of pages because they happen to be the main characters.
More than previous books, Persepolis Rising ends on almost a cliffhanger. The Laconian Empire is just revving up, we're getting more tantalizing glimpses of just how dangerous the rest of the galaxy might be for us evolved monkeys who've just ventured out into the big bad universe, and in the next book, I fully expect the authors to escalate things on an even grander scale.
Also by James S.A. Corey: My reviews of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, and Babylon's Ashes.
My complete list of book reviews.