Book Review: Tiamat’s Wrath

A small passage in the prologue of Tiamat’s Wrath, the eighth and latest entry in the series of novels, The Expanse by James S.A. Corey (the joint pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), finds James Holden held captive in the capitol of Laconia. Having subjugated the Sol system in the previous book Persepolis Rising, Laconia is the center of humanity’s political and military power. Chrisjen Avasarala, the high ranking official of Earth’s United Nations, and a key character of several previous novels in the series has passed away. The Emperor has ordered her funeral to be held in Laconia. Holden notices Avasarala’s granddaughter, and speaks with her.

“As they walked away, he nodded toward the tomb with the words written on it. IF LIFE TRANSCENDS DEATH, THEN I WILL SEEK FOR YOU THERE. IF NOT, THEN THERE TOO. “It’s an interesting quote,” he said. “I feel like I should recognize it. Who wrote it?” “I don’t know,” she said. “She only told us to put it on her grave. She didn’t say where it came from.”

We could be flip and say that the quote is all you need to know to understand Tiamat’s Wrath. While that would be true, you would be missing a great deal of reading pleasure if you just left it at that.

With Tiamat’s Wrath, the Expanse returns its focus to the technology and other clues left behind by the Godlike species that sent the proto-molecule to the solar system, of their unknown killers who still linger, and of men who would re-engineer the human race. But the authors are also deft at depicting the rest of humanity, as they take baby steps into the wide reaches of the galaxy to homestead it, aided by the wormholes of the ring system left behind by the proto-molecule engineers. The focus had wandered somewhat in previous books, and began its return in the previous book.

This book is undoubtedly the strongest entry in the series in several books. It is full of action and wonder on a galactic scale, as opposed to, say. the two-bit terrorist villan in one of the weaker books of the series. It is also about life, death, and the spaces inbetween—the subject of the quote on the tombstone. This review shall not spill any “spoilers,” but suffice it to say that one key crew member dies, and one key crew member becomes a zombie.

It may also help to know who Tiamat was. She was an ancient Babylonian goddess: not only a creator goddess, she was also at the same time, the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. With this book it is suggested that the killers of the proto-molecule engineers “live” in the primordial chaos still to be found in the void spaces outside the universe, the place through which the rings traverse. The made their presence known in the previous book by shutting all life in the solar system down for fifteen minutes after the Laconians fired a powerful weapon left behind by the proto-molecule engineers. This called the existence of the human race to the attention of these others. The “lost time” phenomena is repeated in Tiamat Rising with variations, as it becomes clear that the ancient killers have been awoken, and are rather grumpy about it. Since it has been said that the next book shall be the finale of the series, we can probably expect another book along the same themes as Tiamat.

Slaying of Tiamat from the Enûma Eliš
Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal impression from the eighth century BC identified by several sources as a possible depiction of the slaying of Tiamat from the Enûma Eliš. By Ben Pirard at nl.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3217534

There are a number of very praiseworthy things to be said about Tiamat’s wrath in the meantime, plus a bit of positive criticism as well.

  • Consider the James Holden character, who had to take center stage solo following the “death” of Josephus Miller early in the series. Miller was quirky, funny, and human in ways that eluded the Holden character, who at times was stiff, and limited to agonizing over the responsibilities he held. Here finally in Tiamat’s Wrath, he’s bearable. In fact, as a prisoner of Laconia, he refers to himself as the king’s “dancing bear,” indicating his role as a fearsome beast tamed in order to show the power of the king, or emperor in this case. Holden becomes more thoughtful, funny at times, and a strategic thinker. They’ve upgraded him. Finally.
  • There is a renewed emphasis on minor characters, perhaps to replace some departed major characters. The important thing is that the new characters are beneficial to the plot, and interesting, too. This has not always been the case with minor characters introduced in previous books; more often then not, they’ve been treated as scenery more than human characters. Elvi Okoye, a scientist who narrates the very first chapter (and many others) is an excellent addition. Not only does her knowledge contribute to the plot action, her warmth and charm is a pleasant change of pace. Teresa Duarte, teenage daughter of the Emperor is surprisingly useful as a character who witnesses events. I’m not a big fan of adolescents in space operas, but she is surprisingly well done. And in fact, the authors leverage this minor character to turn the series’ focus back to the larger themes: an Emperor who wants give himself eternal life by using the proto-molecule turns into a statue, as if by Medusa; yet in the end he is left with just enough humanity to kill the man who threatens his daughter.
  • Paolo Cortazar, who goes all the way back to the first book in the series as a proto-moloecule scientist makes several appearances. I would have much liked to see him narrate a chapter in Tiamat’s Wrath. Here he functions mostly as a villain, but he is an interesting villain. He did indeed “narrate” the prologue of the previous book. There is also a novella released separately from the main books in which he is the main protagonist, filling in the space between his captivity at the hands of the Belters, and his assignment to report direct to the Emperor on Laconia. Cortazar is an example of a minor character given short shrift. Camina Drummer, who narrated several chapters of the previous book is another minor character not adequately drawn. She merits a brief mention in Tiamat.
  • Though it wasn’t necessary to know much more about Cortazar than was given in Tiamat’s Wrath, one story line about which a positive criticism could be made is the zombie theme. To explain: among the technology left behind on Laconia were small repair droids, who, comically, looked somewhat like sad-eyed dogs. They were a key plot line in Strange Dogs, one of the novellas. The novellas are easily found online through electronic lending libraries and programs such as OverDrive. This one is very much worth a read, and can be plowed through in under an hour. In any case, the repair droids have the ability to repair a dead person, with some essential changes and improvements. Hence the reference to the “zombie” theme. Two of the results of their work are studied by Cortazar in his efforts to help the Emperor achieve immortality. Additionally, as stated above, one of the main characters is made such a zombie in Tiamat. I feel that the writers would have done well to include the entire novella as a prologue. I had a distinct feeling in reading this book that for someone not familiar with Strange Dogs, the zombie sub plot would have been very difficult to follow.

With more and better action than the most recent books in the series, a breath of new life in at least one of the main characters, a smattering of well drawn new characters, and even a happy ending (sort of a “puttin’ the band back together”), Tiamat’s Wrath is a very welcome addition to the Expanse series. It bodes very well indeed for what is expected to be the series’ finale.

Final note: so far as I can tell, the quote on the tombstone was written by the authors themselves.



 

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉