When the protomolecule opened the ring gates, thirteen hundred of them, allowing humanity access to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, vast, unexplored regions of space and the resources of all the solar systems within, there was a pragmatic caution of what might be found in those worlds left behind when the creators had been wiped out, what might come through those doors through the very fabric of the universe?
Few would have expected that the worst thing humanity would have to face would be itself, or rather the next step in human evolution and the commensurate escalating arrogance of the protomolecule-directed metamorphosis of High Consul Winston Duarte of the Laconian Empire and his unstoppable fleet led by the Magnetar class Heart of the Tempest which brought down the combined fleets of the Sol system, setting an example that to all the other systems to fall in line.
Two years have passed since the events of Persepolis Rising; the aging gunship Rocinante has been retired and mothballed and her crew scattered, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal and Bobbie Draper acting covertly within what remains of the underground, Bobbie and Alex on board the captured Laconian vessel Gathering Storm and Naomi deep undercover as she moves from ship to ship and attempts to gather intelligence without compromising herself or her contacts.
Amos Burton is missing in action, his last mission incomplete, and Jim Holden is on Laconia, given the freedom of the palace grounds and allowed a measure of independence but a prisoner for all that and unable to contact his friends, but some news will make headlines across all the inhabited worlds: such is the death of the great Chrisjen Avasarala, the supposedly unstoppable force which until then had acted as an anchor which stabilised the various powers seeking advantage now fallen away.
Tiamat’s Wrath, eighth novel in The Expanse sequence of James S A Corey, sees the resistance in an untenable position, their diminished forces divided and unable to communicate directly to coordinate any action with Laconia controlling all the relays between the gates but delay can only make things worse; Duarte is building more vessels and is testing the nature of the protomolecule and its behaviour, pushing it to determine whether it harbours any awareness or if it is pure mechanism.
Is it a measure of Duarte’s confidence that for all his rule is enforced at gunpoint that there is a science vessel led by Elvi Okoye of Ilus engaged in actual research of the many systems beyond the gates, seeking better understanding, such as can be gleaned, of the mysterious creators? Not so much; the mission has a secret secondary purpose of service to the military, Elvi defying protocol and risking punishment by pointing out the plan they are a part of is a terrible idea.
Duarte’s arrogance convincing him of his own infinite superiority, instead of capitulating to his will the protomolecule exhibits a new behaviour, striking back, escalating rather than adjusting to the provocation. The devastating results of the experiment chalked up to collateral damage, Elvi knows Duarte will continue unless he can be stopped, and like Bobbie and Naomi, operating on her own anything she can do is just another terrible plan without strategy or hope of success.
Each book of The Expanse having built on the previous and been progressively more radical in the reshaping of the universe and the relationships between the various rival planets, Tiamat’s Wrath is a slower and more reflective novel, hidden shifts of power punctuated with catastrophic instantaneous changes, but unlike Nemesis Games which also split up the crew of the Rocinante to chart their own courses the strands do not tie together so effectively, each of the characters doing their best but shambling forward in near darkness, as frustrating for the reader as for them.
The ninth book planned as the last in the sequence, perhaps it is inevitable that the penultimate volume will out of necessity be conscious of the need to leave the board as it needs to be set up for the planned conclusion, and while that means Tiamat’s Wrath is the first trip to The Expanse that is not fully satisfying, that is still a minor drop from a bar which has been set at a height most science fiction writers would be privileged to reach.