The More Things Change: A Review of Persepolis Rising

Persepolis Rising (2017)
Written by: James S. A. Corey (pen name used by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 549 (Hardcover)
Series: Book Seven of The Expanse
Publisher: Orbit

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Orbit for the purpose of review.

Why I Chose It: I have read, and loved, all of the previous books and novellas in this series, so picking up book seven was a no-brainer.

The premise:

AN OLD ENEMY RETURNS

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…

Minor spoilers ahead.


Discussion: One of the things I love about The Expanse series, one of the things that has me on an automatic preorder plan, is that while all of the stories are connected, each book has its own special flavor. And if you’re looking for an entry that’s especially tangy…well, then you’ve come to the right place. This books in this series are known for their action and their scope, and in most ways, this entry definitely delivers.

This book picks up some time after the conclusion of Babylon’s Ashes. The dust from the latest war has settled, and the members of the Rocinante have had a chance to grow comfortable with their new crew members. More than anything, I would say this story picks up where two of the novellas, The Vital Abyss and Strange Dogs, left off. Specifically returning to the sociopathic narrator of The Vital Abyss, Dr. Cortazár, and the ring planet of Laconia. I don’t know about you, but I was so focused on the “strange dogs” that I skimmed over some of the clues about Laconia’s political structure, but this book proves I wasn’t the only one to forget about, or to underestimate, Admiral Winston Duarte and his band of Martian traitors. There are also more dividends from researching the protomolecule — the funky alien gunk found way back in book one — are surfacing, and there are those who will push those findings to their limits in the name of “the greater good.”

Like all of the previous books in the series, this space opera manages to seem small and large all at the same time. What I mean by that is, while the events are massive in scale, the handful of points of view through which the authors choose to tell this particular story makes the enormity of those events feel intimate and personal. Especially in an entry like this, where the characters that devoted readers already know and love are so very themselves. This is Holden at his most Holden, Naomi at her most Naomi, etc. It’s not that the characters are traveling down well-established ruts; it’s that they are, like real people, sums of their experiences and parts, and by this point, they read as familiarly as old friends — still capable of surprising the reader but mostly acting and reacting the ways we’ve come to expect from them.

Not to say that this book is flawless. There’s always a sense in this series of the characters being sort of trapped in amber between one book and the next, and with a larger time break between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising than we’re used to seeing, that feeling of the characters not growing or changing until they’re on the page is even more pronounced. Which I found frustrating, because while I appreciate that these beloved characters have most of their mental and emotional epiphanies when we’re there to see them, I think the authors missed out on the chance for more funny, or interesting, or heartbreaking revelations as Persepolis Rising unfolds.

This series has also been criticized for is how very bad its Big Bads are, and I can acknowledge that issue. Even though the authors go out of their way to create shades of grey, I would argue that there is a moral absolutism at the heart of their storytelling. There are good guys and bad guys, all of whom are readily identifiable by their actions in this constantly evolving universe.

Take, for example, Amos Burton, the mechanic on the Rocinante, known for his lack of conscience. Amos has done a lot of bad things, things he doesn’t regret, but by the end of book one, he has decided to adopt James Holden as his “aftermarket conscience” because Amos sees in Holden someone who acts from a place of honesty and a true interest in the greater good. So Amos’ inclinations toward violence and mercilessness are tempered by a deep-seated desire to at least perform the actions of a better man.

That said, the main antagonist in this book is neither as big nor as bad as his predecessors. With this villain, the authors make an effort to break from the other books in the series, and they’re largely successful. Although our villain’s boss is the wannabe dictator of nightmares, with toys intimidating and terrifying enough for several books, our villain himself is simply a man who was dragged onto the wrong side of history. He has imbibed the Kool-Aid and become a true believer, but unfortunately for him, he is not as prepared as he thinks he is for the crucible of leadership, and not every person survives the process.

I think there has been an effort made to paint this series over with a veneer of murky grimdark, but it is, at its heart, a fight of good versus evil. There are moments in these books that show humanity at its lowest, but the authors also show humanity at its flawed best. While this may not quite be the utopic future imagined by Gene Roddenberry, there is hope in these books that the best of humanity will, in the end, always end up triumphing over the worst.

Take this quote from the book, from page 530, given totally out of context so as to avoid spoilers:

“[W]e will fight to the last breath because living with someone else’s hand on our necks is intolerable, has always been intolerable, will always be intolerable… [N]ot because of any of the authorities through all of history that have made rules and then dared people to break them. Because we’re human, and humans are mean, independent monkeys that reached their greatness by killing every other species of hominid that looked at us funny. We will not be controlled for long. Not even by ourselves. Any other plan is a pipe dream.”

Basically, there will always be assholes, but the one thing humanity prizes above all else is its freedom, so woe be to those pricks.

That quote should also give you a taste of the language of the series. It’s snarky, and powerful, and funny, and deadly serious all at the same time. The authors pepper their truths with levity, sometimes with the darkest of dark humor, making it easier to palate and, as you can see, readily quotable.

Persepolis Rising is largely a standard entry in the series. Prologue and epilogue aside, it’s told from the points of view of about half a dozen different characters, and there’s plenty of action, plenty of tension, and plenty of science mixed in with the fiction. But to say this book is standard is not to say that it’s stale or predictable. Even seven books in, it doesn’t feel as if the authors have gotten tired with their characters or the world, and their continued engagement translates to an equally engaging reading experience.

In Conclusion: Though all of the books and novellas in this series can function as standalones, some of them are more easily consumed out of context than others. Persepolis Rising is one of the latter, rewarding the regular reader with the fleshing out of some previously minor characters and long-term plotting payoffs. So while you could pick up this book without any previous knowledge, I wouldn’t, because doing so would be to deprive yourself of a massive, and a massively enjoyable, experience.

On my part, I’m already looking forward to rereading this book when the next one in the series comes out.

Persepolis Rising hits the shelves on December 5, 2017.

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