Russell Letson Reviews Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey (Orbit 978-0-316-33287-3, $30.00, 528pp, hc) March 2019. Cover by David Dociu.

There is an empire at the center of the eighth (and projected next-to-last) volume of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse sequence. Tiamat’s Wrath continues the story of the Laconian Empire (begun in Persepolis Rising, 2017), founded by a rebel admiral who is ambitious to have all of humankind under his rule and himself immortal. Here future-history is, if not repeating itself, at least running a familiar set of variations, as stubborn underdogs refuse to knuckle under to an enormously more powerful system of rule. In the earlier books, the struggle pitted the work­ing stiffs of the asteroid belt and outer satellites against the exploitative “Inners” of Earth and Mars. Now those same bolshy Belters form the core of resistance to the totalitarian ambitions of Laconia’s First Consul Duarte (who dodges the imperial title but not the fact of dictatorial rule) and his apparently invulnerable and unstoppable space navy.

Neither human interstellar expansion nor the power of Laconia are purely human accomplish­ments. The gateways leading to 1,300 colonizable solar systems were built by the mysterious pro­tomolecule, and Duarte’s navy and its weaponry are based on abandoned alien technology found in the Laconia system. Human interaction with those technologies, though, has attracted the attention of whatever it was that destroyed the civilization(s) that originally devised them, and that Something would now seem bent on finishing off the scavenging newcomers as well. Exactly who or what that force or entity is and exactly how it might deal with humans is unknown, though Duarte’s attempts to provoke a response by means of a series of strikes-in-the-dark trigger counter-strikes that might answer those questions with unpleasant finality.

The series’ collective protagonists, the aging crew of the gunship Rocinante, have scattered in the face of the Laconia’s exertion of control over all human-occupied space. James Holden is the First Consul’s star captive – a “dancing bear” – on the capital world. Naomi Nagata is helping coordinate the resistance from a cargo- container hideout that is shuffled around like the pea in a shell game. Ex-Martian Marine Bobbie Draper and pilot Alex Kamal are engaged in direct action (that is, raiding and piracy) in the stolen Laconian destroyer Gathering Storm. Very-tough-guy Amos Burton has disappeared while on a secret mission and may well be dead. Their old ally, former UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala, is dead, of natural causes, her funeral and final resting place co-opted by the politically canny Duarte, who always claims the highest motives for any bullying behavior.

As is usual in this series, we see viewpoints other than those of the Rocinante crew. To point-of-view chapters for Holden, Naomi, Bobbie, and Alex are added those for Duarte’s 15-year-old daughter Teresa and exobiologist Elvi Okoye (introduced in Cibola Burn). Teresa is being prepared to rule after her father (even though he’s not planning to die), and while she is very bright and aware, she still feels isolated – her special-privilege situation has more than a hint of princess-in-a-tower. Her favorite movie is about a little girl who discovers secret tun­nels under her home city, and she devises her own way of sneaking out to spend time with a strange person she calls “Timothy.” Elvi and her husband Fayez have been sent to survey a list of “interest­ing” solar systems, looking for more remnants of the dead civilization’s technology, and later Elvi is drafted into more strange and dangerous research close to the First Consul himself. As in earlier series entries, we get to observe monstrous people close up, this time via Teresa and Elvi, who witness the workings of Laconian policies and internal politics in detail, particularly the ruthlessness of the search for alien-tech secrets and Duarte’s hubristic attempts to confront the civilization-killers.

There’s a lot of confinement, restriction, conceal­ment, and hiding in this volume: Holden’s prisoner-at-large status, Naomi and company’s underground or fugitive condition, Teresa’s emotional and social isolation, Elvi’s reluctant following of orders she finds imprudent or otherwise wrong. Beyond this human scale, though, exists a vast world of myster­ies, surprises, wonders, miracles, and terrors – a diamond the size of Jupiter, dead children brought back to uncanny life by ancient technology, attacks that leave entire solar-system populations uncon­scious (or strangely conscious) simultaneously. For all of the intrigue, manipulation, and combat that form the book’s plot points, gentler relationships also run through the whole story: love, loyalty, trust, comradeship, respect, and compassion. Networks of pairings hold the cast together – Holden and Naomi, Elvi and Fayez, Teresa and Duarte (and, secretly, Teresa and Timothy); Bobby and Alex – and the book is threaded through with separation and loss as well as heroism and sacrifice.

The whole series occupies a complex narrative space, some of whose borders are marked by statues of Olaf Stapledon and Doc Smith, but this volume in particular isn’t just another revolt-against-the-empire adventure, or space opera, or even cosmology opera – it has too much heart.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.

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One thought on “Russell Letson Reviews Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

  • May 19, 2019 at 8:56 am

    Greetings to Russell! Was just talking about him with Ginny a day or two ago and whoops, his review pops up in my Google feed. Still waiting to read his book on slack string guitar played by robots. Very best wishes.


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