Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold's THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE

It's considered simply scandalous in many of my circles to have never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold's famous and sprawling Vorkosigan saga, but as it turns out, I'm pretty glad that I hadn't until now, because that scandalousness landed me in the best and most amusing circumstances in which to read these books at long last, to wit, I am a Reading Ranger over at Skiffy and Fanty*, part of a revolving crew of podcasters who occasionally get together for a group geek-out over them now. Some of us are Vorkosigan veterans (of the likes of Alex Acks and Paul Weimer) and some of us, including Stina Leicht (yes, that Stina Leicht) and myself, are reading these books for the very first time. There are two episodes of Reading Rangers so far, covering the first two books (going on narrative internal chronology, rather than publication order), Shards of Honor and Barrayar, over at Skiffy and Fanty, so if you want to hear my thoughts as well as the rest of the gang's, go give those a listen. I'm only a little bit of a heretic over there.

But so, this time around I'm not in the rotation for the show, so I'm just treating this third novel, The Warrior's Apprentice, as a regular read here at Kate of Mind.

Spoiler alert: I loved it.

I wasn't entirely expecting to, mind. As those who've already listened to Reading Rangers know, I was quite taken with the heroine of the first two novels, one Cordelia Naismith, who is the mother of the hero of, I gather, pretty much all of the other novels. When I learned that the focus was going to shift rather abruptly (from my perspective) to her son, Miles, I was a little let down, because Cordelia is everything I never get in a space opera hero: not only a woman, but a single and middle-aged woman, who nonetheless kicks a lot of ass and only takes names when she marries maybe the only dude in the universe possibly worthy of her, a crusty, battered, smart and tough-as-nails artistocrat from another world.

But so, Miles. Remember Miles? This is a book about Miles. Except to understand Miles one needs a bit more backstory: Cordelia's aristocratic military husband, Aral Vorkosigan, is a man of such high position and influence, and so incorruptible, that he has a ton of enemies, some of whom want him dead, one of whom actually tried and almost succeeded, but Cordelia, while pregnant with Miles, was also affected by the attempt, and fetal Miles even more so. So he's short, a little malformed, and has extraordinarily brittle bones. And he's grown up in a culture that is equal parts Roman and Russian Empires, meaning that quite a lot is expected of aristrocrats' sons, including excellence in military service. Which means it's a wonder he's even been allowed to live.

So Miles has grown up watchful and wily, smart and observant and thinking around corners and pretty much like the literary bastard offspring of Tyrion Lannister and Francis Crawford of Lymond, except he's not a drunken lecher, nor is he a pretentious emo pain in the ass. One of the greatest characters ever to grace genre fiction, is Miles Vorkosigan.

Here in his first novel we meet him as a young man, struggling through the entrance requirements for a military academy/officer candidate school. He's aced all the written stuff but as for the physical stuff, well, not-quite-dwarf and not-quite-straight-spine and brittle bones, what do you think? Soon his career is under a cloud and no one is quite sure what to do with him, so he gets sent off to visit his maternal grandmother on Cordelia's home planet, which has a very different and more accepting culture, by the bye.

Not that he's there long, either. Along with his bodyguard, the gruff and dangerous Konstantin Bothari (who has a long and complicated history of his own and whose fortunes are very much tied up with Miles' parents) and his beautiful daughter Elena (Miles' childhood friend, very much an Arya Stark type, as her father is trying to shoehorn her into a life of genteel femininity, but she likes to fight and think and drink and know things), he's soon off on a half-assed adventure out in space on an obsolete freighter he's mortgaged himself to the hilt to lease/purchase because of reasons and he's running blockades and bluffing mercenaries and telling lies and meanwhile, back at home, his adventures are having bizarre and Byzantine consequences because did I mention his home world is an honor culture nightmare?

All this told in a great, elegant prose style with a lot of vivid imagery and analogy. We like, at Reading Rangers, to linger and dote over our favorite bits, and I have a lot of them, but probably my favorite favorite bit is really Bujold's style in a nutshell. As Miles prepares to go into battle, he thinks "This must surely be the worst part, waiting helplessly for Tung to deliver them like cartons of eggs, as fragile, as messy when broken." Oh man, that is the stuff!

So, it's with difficulty that I'm not plunging right into Miles' next adventure, but I'm waiting for more Reading Ranger adventures, and meanwhile, I've got lots of ARCs piling up for review over at Skiffy and Fanty. And other things.

And I'm not sure what Vorkosigan book we're doing next anyway.

*Speaking of Skiffy and Fanty, I'm now a book reviewer over there, too, which is why I've not been posting on books to this blog as often as I once did. It's a WordPress blog so I'm having difficulty creating an overall link to my posts there, but the most recent one, on a recently Kickstartered anthology called Strange California, is here.

Michael Lewis' FLASH BOYS: A WALL STREET REVOLT

I always pick up a volume of Michael Lewis' special brand of financial crisis literature expecting a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of despair, and a whole lot of edification about just how messed up our System of the World* really is. As I've mentioned before, it's kind of a sickness of mine. I can't stop reading about it, but to no end other than to raise my blood pressure, it would seem, because what can I do about it? I'm not an investor and never will be. I've been a politician and don't ever want to do time in that barrel again. And since my arms and hands went to hell, I don't even write much anymore. But still, these books.

But then comes Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, and what's special about it is all there after the colon in the title. For while of course this book lays out in gruesome detail yet another way in which the world of high finance is designed to screw over the little guy, right alongside its anatomy of a giant scam is the story of a handful of very smart and very strange guys who not only figured out how it all worked, but figured out a way to fix the problem and actually put their plan in motion and created a whole new stock exchange built on the principles of fairness to the investor.

The problem these Flash Boys tackled is the kind of thing that should make any decent person's blood boil: with the computerization of all of the world's stock markets came a myriad of opportunities to rig the game against not just the ordinary Joe Blow investor throwing a few thousand dollars around trying to get rich, but also against all of the even more ordinary Joe Blow workers whose pension funds are being thrown around Wall Street, too. And of course those opportunities were not overlooked.

It's all to do with High Frequency Traders (HFTs), many of whom invested ungodly amounts of money in high speed data connections to the stock markets and to investment banks' dark pools, and in computer server placement as physically close to the machines that actually run these as possible, because this allowed them to engage in front-running. When their software bots saw someone buying shares in a particular stock, they triggered other software bots to buy up all of that stock that was available in fractions of a second before the original schlub's order was fulfilled, and thus to drive the price of that stock up a little, and make the schlub pay more for the stock than he should have, to the slight profit of the HFT. Thousands and thousands of times a day. Meaning ungodly amounts of money was transferred from small time investors, hobbyists, pension funds, hedge funds, what have you, to these HFTs, making an incredibly handsome return on their ungodly investment in fiber optic cable, land easements, construction fees and server real estate. Yeah, I know. And it gets worse, because this was all made possible by some newish Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rulings. That were, of course, made by members who have worked in and later tend to go back to jobs in the big investment banks, etc. Foxes, henhouse....

But so, most of Lewis' books that I've read so far have been concerned chiefly with financial villains, and this book certainly felt like another one of those for quite a while. I was hunting up my pitchfork and rounding up some torch-bearers (this was before Charlottesville, OK?) and ready to go knocking on doors in New Jersey, if not Manhattan itself.

But that's not who Lewis' Flash Boys are. The Flash Boys are Brad Katsuyama, once an obscure employee of the Royal Bank of Canada, and the team he put together to figure out why his trades had suddenly become impossible, and then to try to figure out how big the scheme was, and lastly to design and build a stock market that leveled the playing field again. I could almost cheer them as heroes, but in doing so, I'd be celebrating something that in itself still makes me mad, because this is what regulators are supposed to do, except over the years we've cut back on regulators' power, numbers (as in staffing), scope and compensation, all assuring that the revolving door between the public and private sectors of Wall Street keeps spinning faster than Karl Marx does in his grave. How many Brad Katsuyamas has this world produced, this man who would rather figure out a problem and fix it than figure out a problem and profit handsomely from it?

At bottom, Flash Boys is a pretty good detective story, unraveling and explaining very well a very complex and bewildering scheme in a way that gave me a nice strong illusion that I sort of understand it now, but am still powerless to do anything about it except vaguely cheer for Katsuyama and continue to nurse a major hate-on for Wall Street, even as I know that most of what makes my life possible is inextricably tied to its machinations, for good or ill.

Dammit.

*To borrow Isaac Newton's phrase by way of Neal Stephenson.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Libbie Hawker's HOUSE OF REJOICING

Ever since my mother got a Kindle Paperwhite of her very own and she and I joined into a single household on there, all kind of surprises await me every time I hit the "cloud" tab and start sorting through the backlog for my next read. And as I've mentioned before, my mom has pretty excellent taste in books, for all that she likes murder mysteries a lot more than I do.

She also likes historical fiction, especially about Egypt, especially about Egyptian women, so this first book of Libbie Hawker's "Book of Coming Forth by Day" trilogy probably didn't linger long on her TBR pile -- nor did it on mine, once I knew it was a thing.

House of Rejoicing is set early in the reign of the Pharaoh we mostly know as Akhenaten, and concerns itself with four women who are usually just decorative bits in the background of his story of attempted imposition of monotheism on the land of jackal-headed and crocodilian deities: his mother, Tiye, her daughter Sitamun (whom first Tiye's husband Amunhotep III and later Akhenaten himself married, and yes, Sitamun was Amunhotep's daughter, too; this is Egypt, remember? Targaryens except for real, yo), and two of Akhenaten's other wives, the famous Nefertiti (of the iconic bust) and the lesser-known Kiya.*

In the style that has become fashionable since George R.R. Martin first started singing of Ice and Fire, the story is told in point of view chapters that shift the focus among the four women, though overall this first book seems chiefly concerned with the experiences of Kiya, who serves as our naive guide into this world as she discovers how different it is from her native land, and Tiye, whose power is waning at the worst possible time. As in Martin et al, the narrative voice does not shift, as it's all written in the third person, but the experiences of the four queens are different enough to keep the reader from confusing them, and their stories are all compelling and full of convincing and appealing detail.

Being the first novel of a trilogy, House of Rejoicing mostly just lays groundwork for tensions to come. We are given a multifaceted look at the man who will be Akhenatenm, from his mother's disappointed concern to Nefertiti's disgusted scorn (she was supposed to marry his handsome and talented older brother, but he died in what might not have been an accident, of course), to Sitamun's resigned acceptance, to, perhaps surprisingly, what often seems like genuine love and affection for the man on the part of Kiya, to whom he was the only one who really paid attention when she came originally to marry Akhenaten's father. We get just glimpses of what this man's eccentricities are going to mean for his realm later on. I hope that the later books broaden the scope a bit, but only if Hawker can pull that off without losing what makes her take on these characters unique, which is largely the perspective of Kiya and what Hawker portrays as her genuine love for the young Akhenaten.

I'm down for the other two!

*Whom many have suggested might have been the same person as Nefertiti, but I think most scholars nowadays them to have been different people, with Nefertiti being a daughter of native Egyptian nobility and Kiya a foreign princess from the kingdom of Mittani. This is the history Hawker follows for these novels, anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dorothy Dunnett's THE UNICORN HUNT

I've already had one bout of impatience with Niccolo, his opacity, his motivations and his less than stellar treatment of his companions, but things got much, much worse in The Unicorn Hunt, even though I once again got to see sights and have experiences that are really not available to me in meatspace life. Niccolo has just become a real jackass of a tour guide.

Of course this is all fallout from the knife-twist of an ending that Scales of Gold brought us (spoilers for that novel follow. What are you even doing reading this review if you haven't read that book anyway?). Gelis van Borsalen, once just the bratty younger sister of Niccolo's lover Katelina, took the virago route to better hound Niccolo about her sister's sad fate, for which she and all of Niccolo's other enemies still blamed him, and forced herself on him as a traveling companion, the better to simultaneously berate him and get the gory details about what became of poor Katelina. But of course, of course, of course, she wound up sleeping with him. A lot. And they decided that maybe they liked each other well enough to maybe get married when they got home from their African adventures. Which they did, but only after Gelis spent some time in Scotland as a maid-of-honor to Princess Mary. Where her orbit intersected with that of Niccolo's very estranged maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol*. Very intimately. Oh, look, she wasn't through trying to punish Niccolo, was she?

So now Gelis claims to be pregnant, but not by her shiny new husband. And her shiny new husband is still reeling from the news that Loppe (whom we now call Umar because that was his actual name all along) was killed along with his entire family in a massacre back at Timbuktu.

So what with one thing and another, The Unicorn Hunt is one giant traveling temper tantrum on the part of Niccolo. As we travel with him from Bruges to Scotland to the Tyrol to Egypt to Cyprus to Venice, we are meant to understand that a very elaborate and subtle game is going on between our hero and his crafty wife, but it really just looks like Niccolo has gone right off the rails, picking fights with former friends, viciously attacking old enemies in unconscionably harsh ways, lying to his companions (well, he always does that, but it's usually in some way for their own good? Or at least not seemingly just for the sake of being a jerk?) and generally just causing trouble for everybody. There are allusions strewn throughout the narrative to things being "steps" in a "plan"  but I could never figure out what the plan really was or even what it was supposed to accomplish, save finally flushing out Gelis, who hid herself away after their wedding night, claims to have given birth but keeps spiriting away the alleged child before Niccolo can even lay eyes on it, but if that's all that was aimed for, it's the most unnecessarily convoluted Rube Goldberg machine of a plan, maybe ever, and it didn't work too well anyway.

What saved this novel for me was a new character, a sort of proto-Phillippa Somerville named Katelijne, niece of Niccolo's one time good friend and protector Anselm Adorne, whose antics in Niccolo's train and wake are highly original and entertaining and who takes no crap from anybody, even when she's mortally ill. That and my love for many of the secondary characters in Niccolo's company, especially physician Tobie, sailor Michael Crackbene, Grigorio the lawyer and his mistress, Margo... I'm always happy to see any of them in a Niccolo novel (and many of the others besides, but some got left in Bruges, or Scotland, or Venice, etc.).

And believe me, this novel needed saving, because not only has its hero turned into a world class asshat, but he's also, midway through an eight-volume series of highly realistic, plausible and naturalistic historical fiction, suddenly manifested a supernatural talent that then serves to get him out of all of his plot difficulties: he's a diviner. Not just a water witch, though he is that; he can also divine seams of precious metals waiting to be mined, find stashes of already coined precious metals, and even, via the trick of tying an object to a string and swinging it over a map, find people who are hiding from him. Dudes, I'm about ready to give up right here.

But still, it's Dunnett. And despite all of the things that made me want to tear my hair out, there are still wonderful things to be had from this novel. Her ability to evoke exotic settings and celebrations, her descriptions of places I'll never see and places that don't exist anymore, and the cultures that inhabit-or-once inhabited them, is second to none, and no matter how much she wound up cheating us of an amiable hero and a plausible plot resolution, she did not cheat us on any of her scenery porn.

So I'm going to keep going in a while, but right now, I need a break from Niccolo and his tantrums. He can still and think a while about what he's done. I've got a summer of Wolfe to get on with.

*Who, for his part, is unknowingly raising a child born to his late wife, Katelina, that is not, in fact, his, but was sired by one Niccolo.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tatyana Toylstoya's THE SLYNX

It's not every day that I come across a novel that seems destined for the "among the strangest things I've ever read" category simultaneously as it also just never quite winds up feeling strange enough, somehow, but such is Tatyana Tolstoya*'s The Slynx, a post-apocalyptic and satirical fantasy that is couched very much in terms of a folk tale.

The setting is sort-of-rural Russia, some 200 years after a violent unknown event referred to by its survivors as, simply, "The Blast", which was pretty obviously a nuclear war that didn't quite destroy the world, but sure did change it, starting with the aforementioned survivors. Those in our little corner of what's left of the world who managed to live through The Blast and its immediate aftermath just kept on living unless murdered or killed by a freak accident or finally just sickened of it all enough to commit suicide. But get this: they don't really age, and, if they were of childbearing age at the time of The Blast, they could keep on having children, and did, and so repopulation happened at a good rate.

Only about those children. Yes, about them. That's where mutation sets in. Everybody's got some kind of disfigurement, some visible, some not. And these children age, and die off, and basically enjoy the lifestyle and span of your average Russian serf, circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It could be almost idyllic, if your idea of an idyll is a return to pre-mechanized agriculture, ignorance, superstition, and boredom. Oh, and of a whole new sub-race of people who are human but alas, are also quadrupeds and are thus used in place of draft animals.** Draft animals that drink too much vodka and talk back to their owners and occasionally maybe try to stage a revolution...

Enter one Benedikt, son of an "Oldener" woman, who works as a copyist of old pre-Blast manuscripts. His calling is kind of noble and it lends him a certain weird distinction -- in order to copy one has to read -- but the 200 years between the last of these books' publication and his own time have wrought changes that make a lot of the knowledge he can gain thereby useless or nearly so, because it's all about context, and the context has changed. For instance, while books are precious in Benedikt's world, it's chiefly as testaments to the wonderful wit and wisdom of Dear Leader, one Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. He wrote them all, you see. All the novels, all the how-to books, all the chemistry text books. War and Peace, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. A Manual of Applied Organic Chemstry, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. The 1972 Sears Catalog, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And yes, he is a despot, ruling from afar with the help of the dreaded Saniturions, secret/thought police in the guise of public health officials, who punish freethinkers by treating them as vectors of disease. Straight out of the movie Brazil, these guys. All that's missing are the weird baby masks.

But so, the plot of The Slynx (the Slynx being an imaginary monster that attacks and tears apart lone villagers in the night, and pretty much serving as a metaphor for all the woes of this world, especially ignorance and oblivion, because this book is all about what happens when a culture's memory is obliterated and everyone is just trying to make sense of it all from random pieces) is pretty much that of Snowpiercer. Benedikt is very like Curtis, if Curtis was more of a lovable doofus who marries above his station than a guilt-ridden antihero who kills his way to the front of the train, who advances uncomprehendingly through the several strata of a very confined society and learns that its very top/front isn't all that different from the rear/bottom and that it's all pretty much just a sad little cemetery of a society he's living in. But funny. Darkly and deeply funny.

You know, like life is. We're having a Blast. And maybe that's all that we deserve to be remembered for?

*Yes, she is from the same family as that War & Peace guy.

**Not a lot of animals survived The Blast. Mice are the primary food animal, and also serve as a kind of currency, for example. There are other, barely recognizable, creatures around, but most of them are not safe to eat.

Dorothy Dunnett's SCALES OF GOLD

Oh, Niccolo, Niccolo, Nicollo. It's been too long since I followed your adventures. So long that I had to catch up again by listening to all of the books I'd already read as audio books*

There is a stinger of a surprise ending to Scales of Gold, the fourth in the House of Niccolo series, that threatens to blot all that comes before it from memory. I'm not going to give away that ending, because it's a doozy, but in so resolving, I'm making this a harder blog entry for myself.

The machinations of Niccolo's enemies (his very estranged supposed father and grandfather, and the rival mercantile house, the Vatochino, chief among them) have left Team Niccolo cash poor but rich in responsibilities, so the need becomes immediately evident that the gang needs money. Hard money. The very hardest. And where, before the New World ripened for the plundering, did gold come from?

Africa. And where does Niccolo's best friend and maybe sometime lover (last novel the King of Cyprus said sooner or later Niccolo would either have to send him away or make him his lover), Loppe the polyglot omnitalented African, a former slave who has mentioned betimes that it would be swell if he could go home and show Niccolo the sights and they could maybe get some gold...

But meanwhile, other fallout from Niccolo's previous adventures is falling out. His maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol, has a sister, who had a Portuguese husband that died last novel (and of course some people blame Niccolo, but we know the truth), leaving behind a young son and half of a trading company (Simon owns the other half, dun dun DUUUUUNNNN), and it, too, is on the brink of failure, but Niccolo has a plan to maybe save it and blah blah blah everybody is on the island of Madeira (not yet famous for its wines) but oh, they're too late -- Simon has been there and decided to sell off his half of the company to... The Vatochino! His sister and nephew will be destitute, unless Niccolo and Loppe can save the day!

But wait, they don't think they're going alone, do they? Because no. The nephew, Diniz Vasquez, must go with them. And so must... Oh jeez. So must one Bel of Cuthilgurdy, Simon's sister Lucia's best friend and traveling companion**, and also... Gelis van Borsalen. Last seen as Katelina van Borsalen's bratty little sister back in Niccolo Rising. She's all grown up now, as attractive as her late sister, and pretty damned sure that, whatever the official ruling, Katelina's death is also Niccolo's fault. And she's not going to give him any peace, going to follow him wherever he goes like a buxom young Fury.

Many of Niccolo's other friends are involved in this venture as well, but the significant one aside from those already named is Father Godscalc, originally the house chaplain to the Charetty Company (Niccolo's original employer as well, whose widowed owner he married by way of positioning him to help her to expand its scope and get him a good start in business in his own right, and from which he wound up inheriting many excellent advisers, partners and helpers, some of whom are keepers of various of his secrets and some of whom can barely stand him and some of whom are just in it for the money. Of these, Godscalc is one of the secret keepers, of course), who also wants to go to Africa, but not for gold; he wants to find a land route from the continent's western coast to Ethiopia, believed to be the true home of that legendary Christian king, Prester John. Goldscalc envisions a great evangelical pilgrimage to Prester John's kingdom, saving souls and making converts all the way, and securing from that great king a pledge of money and manpower to help save the rest of Christendom from the Turk. Niccolo, Niccolo kind of owes him one.

But so, adventures. Lots and lots of adventures, including an entertaining sea battle on the way from Madeira to the mouth of the Gambia, in which a ship that Niccolo was given by Emperor of David of Trebizond back in The Spring of the Ram but was originally owned by, you got it, Simon, must attack a ship sailed by the Vatochino without being recognized as both companies race for the gold. Whoever gets there first has the upper hand in contacting the natives and making the deals for that season's haul.

But all of that's just preamble. The heart of this novel is in, that's right, Timbuktu, a city of clay and mud that dissolves when it rains, only to be built again because it is a city of scholars, holy men and entrepreneurs, and its position makes it the crossroads for much of western Africa's commerce circa the 15th century. Everybody in Niccolo's party has something to learn there, as well as things to acquire (like copies of scrolls from the impressive libraries repositories of Timbuktu). The interlude here is as lovely as anything Dunnett has written, and as satisfying. But Dunnett is never satisfied merely with being satisfied, and Prester John beckons.

A lot of people point to this novel as a turning point in Niccolo's development as a man and a character, and they are right to. Up to this point he has been largely passive and protean, exercising his talents in mostly hidden ways, often only when others have forced him to. Here he finally takes his fate and that of others deliberately into his hands, realizes he is an adult and that his life doesn't have to be solely one of avenging the circumstances of his irregular birth. He leaves Africa interested in finding for himself the pleasures of family life, which he has tasted with the Charetty company -- his late wife had two nearly-grown daughters who eventually came around to being okay with having a stepdad just a few years older than they -- but now wants for real. And now I'm not going to say anymore about that because it's all tied up in the twist ending, a real emotional cliffhanger that had me plunging straight into the next novel, the Unicorn Hunt.

Dorothy, Dorothy, Dorothy!

*Which, these are pretty good, but I could have done without all of the accents, especially on the female characters. Most male narrators don't do female voices well anyway and really shouldn't even try, but they sound much worse when they're also given comic Italian or Flemish or Greekish accents.

**Which, get ready for Bel. She's late middle aged, fat, Scottish, fiercely intelligent, stubborn and altogether awesome. She may be my favorite Dorothy Dunnett character yet. I love her so much I had to consult the oracle of internets to make sure she appears in later books, because if she got killed off (spoiler: not in this novel) I was going to be very, very angry.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

James S.A. Corey's NEMESIS GAMES

While the planetary adventure on Ilus kept Cibola Burn interesting and lively and was a logical expansion (heh) of the overall storyline of James S.A. Corey's series, it also all but fridged Naomi and, to a lesser degree, Alex, while Amos was mostly relegated to being Holden's smarter-than-he-looks-but-still-basically-a-thug thug, and so left this reader a teeny bit dissatisfied when the dust had settled.

And while the return to the confines of our own solar system might make Nemesis Games seem like it's backing off from the bigness of the Expanse's story, it also brought a welcome focus back to the characters we've traveled through four novels with: the crew of the Rocinante, Avasarala and Fred Johnson. But really, it's the Rocinante Four who shine here. And it's about damned time.

Having barely made it back to Tycho to get their beloved gunship repaired, the crew now look to be stuck for a while; it's going to be a good six months before the Rocinante flies again. A nice and well-deserved rest is great and all, but it doesn't make for much of a story -- or a life for people who are used to being on the move and at the center of system-spanning events. Which is to say that they get bored with hanging around the space station and so...

They split up.

Ordinarily, this would annoy me, because generally when the crew has broken up it's become the Holden show with the rest of the crew just sort of appearing here and there as supporting characters. But not this time; this time all four crew members get to be the central figure in their own stories, all of which are exciting, challenging and at times heartbreaking. We see their resourcefulness, learn more about their backgrounds, and while each of them quickly comes to regret their decisions to leave Tycho for a spell, we, the readers, most certainly do not.

The novel still manages to explore the consequences of what has gone on before -- the opening up of the rest of the galaxy or universe to human exploration and colonization via the protomolecular Gate -- as the "land rush" commences. Mars threatens to become a ghost planet. Earth might have to struggle with being the seat of an ever-larger empire (or give up on hegemony). And as for the Belters, well, who's going to need them? There are thousands of habitable exoplanets within reach now, with all the resources humanity could want for centuries to come. Who needs a bunch of malcontents, barely adapted to life in space (just enough to make life down a gravity well pretty much impossible for them), who only know how to live in tin cans, mine asteroids, keep junky spaceships flying, and carefully husband resources that are no longer scarce?

What population like that has ever gone down without a fight, though? Look at our current political situation in the U.S. (and, increasingly, elsewhere): superfluous labor, unwilling to be sidelined and forgotten, has lashed out and is (yes, along with misguided Christian fundamentalists and short-sighted plutocrats) largely responsible for putting a terrifyingly incompetent narcissist in control of the nuclear football.

So, too, the Expanse. The Belters aren't going to take things lying down, and they have a handsome, charismatic, possibly Alexander-caliber leader in (eyeroll) Naomi's ex-lover Marco, who unleashes about ten different kinds of hell and devastation on the Inner Planets (Earth & Mars) and on the legacy power center of the Outer Planets Alliance (Fred Johnson and Tycho -- and the Nauvoo Behemoth Medina Station. Except... He's really kind of a self-appointed leader. Those in his personal orbit of course follow him gladly because hello, but the rest of the Belt? Was everybody down for the kind of massive attack he and his coterie unleash here? It's a question not really addressed in this book, which is concerned chiefly with the buildup to this attack and the experiences of the Rocinantes in trying to reunite, but I'm really hoping this doesn't get dropped the way the "Mormons are going to be pissed" got dropped when their generation ship was appropriated to try and redirect Eros way back when, IYKWIM.

But anyway, our heroes once again manage to find themselves at the centers of all of these plots in some fashion, though some more than others. Amos just gets an escape plot but Naomi and Alex both wind up playing crucial roles in the unfolding disasters and humanity's response to them, and well, of course Holden and Fred and Avarasala do. I'm done fussing over the unlikelihood of this same small group of people always winding up with the fate of human space in their hands, though. I just give up. It shouldn't be allowed to spoil my enjoyment of these very enjoyable books. And stuff.

I might pause for a while before picking up the current last novel in the series, Babylon's Ashes, though. I'm not ready for the experience of having to wait for more. This way I can pretend I'm somewhat in control, you know?