The Rocinante is getting old, and so is her crew, James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal, Amos Burton, Bobbie Draper and Clarissa Mao. It’s been thirty years since the events of Nemesis Games and their repercussions in Babylon’s Ashes, three decades since the asteroid strikes which nearly destroyed Earth’s ecosystem, a period during which the devastated planet has slowly recovered some of its former economic and political strength.
The outer planets and the colonies beyond the ring gates have made great strides, individually small but collectively a signal that the balance of power has shifted irrevocably, but inevitably there are some worlds which have not prospered and who have been driven to desperate actions in order to survive; Holden and the Rocinante are sent to deliver an ultimatum to one such colony which will result in their certain deaths if the will of President Camina Drummer of the Transport Union is enforced.
As ever, Holden has his own interpretation of his very specific orders, but unlike Chrisjen Avasarala who gladly embraced the balance of compromise if it maintained the peace in the long run, Drummer is unwilling to accept any deviation from the example she planned to make of Freehold, but there are others whose plans go far beyond any such parochial squabbles, prepared to engineer nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of human society across all of colonised space under one supreme authority.
In Persepolis Rising, the seventh book of James S A Corey’s The Expanse, the rug is pulled out from under the established hierarchy of the Sol system; in many ways, things have never been this bad before, even when the rocks fell on Earth, which was at least a comprehensible if reprehensible act of Newtonian physics, a genocidal act of terrorism which obeyed the laws of classical science if not of human decency.
What has come through the gate from the Laconia system defies the imagination, Corey for once floundering to adequately describe the Heart of the Tempest, only its devastating power not only to destroy but to remain impervious to any attack launched against it, and for once neither diplomacy, superior tactics nor subterfuge can be used against an overwhelming enemy who have no interest in anything other than total capitulation.
A series which has seen alien infestation and human terrorism, corporate subterfuge and open warfare, frontier skirmishes and shipboard mutinies, Persepolis Rising is something else, the fait accomplit of an occupation by an unstoppable force operating under the aegis of Winston Duarte, former admiral of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy and now insane god-emperor of Laconia, transformed by his experimentation with the protomolecule.
Appointed by Duarte to take command of Medina Station is Captain Santiago Singh, a true believer in the cause whose intention is to bring the greatness of Laconia to the other planets and colonies, their cooperation enforced at the point of a gun and with no alternative but summary execution should they resist, which of course they invariably will.
Where the earlier books in the series often had a clear and specific goal, like its immediate predecessor Persepolis Rising is simply about survival when the only guaranteed way to ensure it is absolute surrender, something which does not come easy after years of fighting, and again the narrative splits the crew of the Rocinante though in a different way, Holden isolated and out of action, a blow to his shipmates who can still surprise each other and their devoted readers.
With the sense that each successive trip to The Expanse must be bigger than the previous, the point of diminishing returns as the technologies reach a developmental asymptote has not yet been reached but it cannot be far off, and for the first time some of the action scenes are unsatisfying, the complex internal and external structure of Medina not well conveyed, but even with these minor quibbles Persepolis Rising is still a thrilling addition to the premiere space opera of the age.