Abaddon's Gate

by James S.A. Corey

Cover image

Series: The Expanse #3
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 0-316-23542-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 540

Buy at Powell's Books

Abaddon's Gate is the third book in the Expanse series, following Caliban's War. This series tells a single long story, so it's hard to discuss without spoilers for earlier books although I'll try. It's a bad series to read out of order.

Once again, solar system politics are riled by an alien artifact set up at the end of the previous book. Once again, we see the fallout through the eyes of multiple viewpoint characters. And, once again, one of them is James Holden, who starts the book trying to get out of the blast radius of the plot but is pulled back into the center of events. But more on that in a moment.

The other three viewpoint characters are, unfortunately, not as strong as the rest of the cast in Caliban's War. Bull is the competent hard-ass whose good advice is repeatedly ignored. Anna is a more interesting character, a Methodist reverend who reluctantly leaves her wife and small child to join an interfaith delegation (part of a larger delegation of artists and philosophers, done mostly as a political stunt) to the alien artifact at the center of this book. Anna doesn't change that much over the course of the book, but her determined, thoughtful kindness and intentional hopefulness was appealing to read about. She also has surprisingly excellent taste in rich socialite friends.

The most interesting character in the book is the woman originally introduced as Melba. Her obsessive quest for revenge drives much of the plot, mostly via her doing awful things but for reasons that come from such a profound internal brokenness, and with so much resulting guilt, that it's hard not to eventually feel some sympathy. She's also the subject of the most effective and well-written scene in the book: a quiet moment of her alone in a weightless cell, trying to position herself in its exact center. (Why this is so effective is a significant spoiler, but it works incredibly well in context.)

Melba's goal in life is to destroy James Holden and everything he holds dear. This is for entirely the wrong reasons, but I had a hard time not feeling a little bit sympathetic to that too.

I had two major problems with Abaddon's Gate. The first of them is that this book (and, I'm increasingly starting to feel, this series) is about humans doing stupid, greedy, and self-serving things in the face of alien mystery, with predictably dire consequences. This is, to be clear, not in the slightest bit unrealistic. Messy humans being messy in the face of scientific wonder (and terror), making tons of mistakes, but then somehow muddling through is very in character for our species. But realistic doesn't necessarily mean entertaining.

A lot of people die or get seriously injured in this book, and most of that is the unpredictable but unsurprising results of humans being petty assholes in the face of unknown dangers instead of taking their time and being thoughtful and careful. The somewhat grim reputation of this series comes from being relatively unflinching about showing the results of that stupidity. Bad decisions plus forces that do not care in the slightest about human life equals mass casualties. The problem, at least for me personally, is this is not fun to read about. If I wanted to see more of incompetent people deciding not to listen to advice or take the time to understand a problem, making impetuous decisions that make them feel good, and then turning everything to shit, I could just read the news. Bull as a viewpoint character doesn't help, since he's smart enough to see the consequences coming but can't stop them. Anna is the one character who manages to reverse some of the consequences by being a better person than everyone else, and that partly salvages the story, but there wasn't enough of that.

The other problem is James Holden. I was already starting to get annoyed with his self-centered whininess in Caliban's War, but in Abaddon's Gate it turns into eye-roll-inducing egomania. Holden seems convinced that everything that happens is somehow about him personally, and my tolerance for self-centered narcissists is, shall we say, at a historically low ebb. There's a point late in this book when Holden decides to be a sexist ass to Naomi (I will never understand what that woman sees in him), and I realized I was just done. Done with people pointing out to Holden that he's just a wee bit self-centered, done with him going "huh, yeah, I guess I am" and then making zero effort to change his behavior, done with him being the center of the world-building for no good reason, done with plot armor and the clear favor of the authors protecting him from consequences and surrounding him with loyalty he totally doesn't deserve, done with his supposed charisma which is all tell and no show. Just done. At this point, I actively loathe the man.

The world-building here is legitimately interesting, if a bit cliched. I do want to know where the authors are going with their progression of alien artifacts, what else humanity might make contact with, and what the rest of the universe looks like. I also would love to read more about Avasarala, who sadly didn't appear in this book but is the best character in this series so far. I liked Anna, I ended up surprising myself and liking Melba (or at least the character she becomes), and I like most of Holden's crew. But I may be done with the series here because I'm not sure I can take any more of Holden. I haven't felt this intense of dislike for a main series character since I finally gave up on The Wheel of Time.

Abaddon's Gate has a lot of combat, a lot of dead people, and a lot of gruesome injury, all of which is belabored enough that it feels a bit padded, but it does deliver on what it promises: old-school interplanetary spaceship fiction with political factions, alien artifacts, some mildly interesting world-building, and, in Melba, some worthwhile questions about what happens after you've done something unforgivable. It doesn't have Avasarala, and therefore is inherently far inferior to Caliban's War, but if you liked the previous books in the series, it's more of that sort of thing. If Holden has been bothering you, though, that gets much worse.

Followed by Cibola Burn.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-06-15

Last modified and spun 2019-06-16