Book Review: Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7) by James S. A. Corey

When the buzz started building for the recent premiere of The Expanse Season 3 on SYFY, I realized I was at least half a season behind on the show. Maybe more importantly, I was a book behind on the series from which the show is adapted, James. S. A. Corey's "The Expanse," which currently sits at seven novels and counting. The book series from the writing duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (Corey is a nom de plume) is one of the best space-opera science fiction tales around, and the newest book, Persepolis Rising, may be the best entry in the series so far.

Persepolis Rising picks up thirty years after the end of the previous novel, Babylon's Ashes. The time jump could have felt jarring in the hands of less capable writers, but here it seems like the logical next stop on the timeline of this meticulously crafted universe. We get the sense that plenty has happened in the intervening time, but that it was mostly background leading up to whatever inflection point we are approaching as the novel begins. Captain James Holden and the close-knit crew of the gunship Rocinante are still in operation, taking contracts for the Transport Union that controls trade through the many gates of the Ring station and the 1,300 worlds that lie beyond. The crew is noticeably aged, as is their beloved ship, and readers will find the comfortable affection between the crew - the product of spending so many years together - reflected in our own affection for these characters after reading about them for years. It's a pleasant feeling to "reunite" with Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, Clarissa, and Bobbie. This crew, the central characters in The Expanse, are human, flawed, lovable, and sometimes frustrating... in other words, believably human. They are the core of this series and the main reason readers keep reading & watching.

So of course something bad has to happen to them. This is a novel, after all, and there must be conflict. The conflict in Persepolis Rising comes fast and it comes big. When the scale and complexity of the newest problem becomes apparent, you'll know Franck and Abraham have been busy, and that they aren't resting on their laurels. They mean business. The crew of the Rocinante find themselves caught in the middle of what amounts to a surprise invasion by an empire that's been secretly growing out beyond the Ring for thirty years. Series readers: remember Winston Duarte? The guy who fled through a ring gate at the end of Nemesis Games, along with a small armada and a stolen protomolecule sample? Well, he hasn't been relaxing on the beach for the last three decades. He and his scientists have been exploring the capabilities of the mysterious protomolecule, relic of an ancient and extremely powerful alien civilization, and now they're ready to share what they've learned with the rest of the universe, whether the rest of the universe likes it or not. 

This is far more than a simple "good guys vs. evil empire" story, however. These authors have a genuine knack for creating sticky ethical and political dilemmas without any easy solutions, and they never shy away from exploring the depth and validity of opposing perspectives. No one is entirely "good" or "bad" in this story - there are simply people who believe in different things, and bad things happen when those beliefs can't coexist in the same space. Watching the characters grapple with such complex and difficult situations carries as much tension as the space battles do (and make no mistake, the space battles in The Expanse are always excellent). In previous books, The Expanse has occasionally gotten bogged down in political maneuvering; it's been a minor soft spot in the series that could occasionally slow down the pace and get a bit dull. Not so in Persepolis Rising. The political quandaries here are immediate, the consequences are clear, the stakes are as high as it gets, and the decisions are usually excruciating. The authors seem to have really hit their stride with this aspect of the story.

Same goes for the character development. James Holden and crew are already some of the most engaging, realistic, and memorable characters in any recent speculative fiction, but in Persepolis Rising, we get to know them even better. We watch how they each handle aging, infirmity, separation, transfers of power, and being stuck in dangerous situations with people they know better than they know themselves. You'll find yourself engrossed in Bobbie Draper's awkwardness with accepting the emotional responsibilities of command. You'll feel the pangs of sadness as Holden mulls over retirement. And when taciturn but brutal head-knocker Amos starts showing signs of a possible breakdown brewing... you'll be viscerally relieved that you're not in the same room with him. Fiction lives or dies on the strength of its characters, and in The Expanse, you'll find some of the most sympathetic and human characters anywhere. It's worth reading the series simply to take this journey alongside the Rocinante's crew and get to know them along the way.

That said, if what you're looking for is more along the lines of alien technologies, death-defying secret missions, planet-killing super-weapons, and massive battles where the fate of the universe may hang in the balance...  don't worry. Persepolis Rising has you covered. When a strange and menacing dreadnought appeared through the Laconia gate to threaten Medina Station, I felt like a kid watching Star Wars for the first time again, and the unintended side effects of a devastating new weapon made for some deliciously mind-boggling scientific brain-teasers. As always, Franck and Abraham are assiduous in their attention to scientific detail, and they aren't afraid to tackle the Big Ideas. What makes this series great is that the authors have consistently balanced some truly awe-inspiring SF ideas and set-pieces against the personal, human realities of conflict and strife. The story keeps ratcheting up the tension on multiple fronts, switching from intimate interpersonal drama to solar-system-scale battle without losing the overall narrative flow. The more intimate storylines are always set against the ever-present backdrop of the larger-scale conflict, and the big battles never neglect to drive home the human cost of war.

Persepolis Rising is tightly written and expertly paced, with compelling characters, white-knuckle action, intricate political intrigue, and fascinating ideas both scientific and philosophical. It's an exciting sign that The Expanse series is on a roll and picking up steam. Highly recommended.