Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7) - James S.A. Corey

Persepolis Rising is the seventh in James S.A. Corey’s  ‘Exapnse’ grand space opera series. The Expanse has always fused hard-hitting action with relatable characters in a sweeping cosmos- and that tradition continues here.

Persepolis Rising is, at least in part, a book about legacy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also a book about change, about insurgency, about family, about hard fought victories and bitter defeats. But the idea of legacy was one which stuck with me as I turned the pages. Holden and Naomi, two of the central protagonists of the series, are starting to feel the weight of their years. They’ve fought the good fight and saved the world multiple times, but heroism isn’t an especially forgiving gig. They’re tired – even Holden’s relentless idealism has had the sharp edges filed off it over the years. This consideration of what happens to folk heroes after they’ve done their time in the saddle is fascinating. Legacy is also a concern of the antagonist – an individual determined that humanity will be prepared to face the challenges thrust upon it as it enters a wider universe. Where Holden and Naomi have a legacy, this is a more targeted approach to immortality. Here is an individual who wants humanity to survive and throve, and believes that having one leader, with one vision, rather than a multiplicity, is the way to achieve this. It’s slightly terrifying to find that the arguments presented are plausible, the ideology resonant, if also repulsive. Here is a person with a grand, sweeping vision of humanity, one which is a response to the factors driving a new galactic society. That the vision is backed by atrocities, and the society by military force, is almost ancillary.

If Holden and the Rocinante crew are aging heroes, their opposition is energised, vital, and downright plausible. They’re not ravening hordes of unreasoning zealots, but individuals prepared to put themselves on the line for humanity, just as our protagonists are. That lets us see them as sympathetic and human, as part of the whole, rather than as an ‘other’ – and that very humanity is part of what makes them so relentlessly terrifying.

Anyway. Many of my old favourites are here – Holden, Naomi, Amos and the rest of the Rocinante gang. Seeing them react to sea-changes in their relationships, in the way which they interact with each other, is delightful. They’re a family, yes, but one with the familiar level of squabbles and strife. At the same time, they’re also able to back each other to the hilt. Reading about the Rocinante again is like a warm bath – comfortable, relaxing, enjoyable. We also get the point of view of one of their antagonists – which is humane, relatable, charming, and as a consequence, rather worrying. Sitting in the head of a man with ideals isn’t as strange as all that - witness our time with Holden. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a complex individual, on willing to do anything in service of their goal – and it’s a point of view which by its very every-day humanity evoked unease in me as a reader. I’d recommend the book for this nuanced portrayal of an opponent alone; that it mixes with a loving and unflinching gaze on the crew of the Rocinante, and their own slow decline into obscurity, makes it downright wonderful.

Plot-wise, this – well, it’s the Expanse. There’s some marvellously choreographed space-battles, if those are your thing. The tension, the sense of velocity and human cost, kept me on the edge of my seat. The feeling that both words and actions mattered was constant, and as the stakes and effects mounted, the narrative kept me committed to seeing it through. Alongside these are some compelling scenes of struggle on the ground – and the text isn’t shy about exploring themes of collaboration, terrorism, the effects and aftermaths of actions on all sides. It’s sharply observed, bloody-edged work, and it’s certain to keep you wondering what happens next.

As with preceding books, this one comes with some big ideas. There’s galaxy-spanning transport networks, and discussions about how far one can go in service of humanity. There’s grand visions and ideas that surge off the page like a fire in the brain. But they’re backed by quieter, complex moments, where everyone makes their own decisions. Where the ‘bad guys’ are heroes in their own minds, and where even the heroes have to make hard choices and bear the consequences.

Is this worth reading? If you’re new to The Expanse series, you may want to go back to the beginning, and see if its blend of hard sci-fi, human drama and high concept is for you. If you’re all caught up – then yes, you need to read this. It throws open entirely new questions about what’s going on, and what will happen next, and it does so by exploring big ideas through very human experiences, and a willingness to explore both rewards and costs. It’s an absolute cracker, and a must-read for any fan of the series. 

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