“Nerving yourself up to kiss your big crush for the first time? Or getting [angry] because the apartment one over has a nicer view than yours? Playing with your grandbabies, or drinking beer with the [people] from work because going back to an empty house is too depressing? All the grimy, grubby [baloney] that comes with being locked in your own head for a lifetime. That’s the sacrifice. That’s what you give up to get a place among the stars.” – James SA Corey, Leviathan Falls
For an author as successful as James SA Corey has become, it would be easy to coast at the end of a series. To take a self-celebratory victory lap with a few hundred pages spent tying up loose ends, have characters reminisce about how good the series has been, and then sail gently into the golden glow of fan nostalgia.
Leviathan Falls, the final book of The Expanse, is not such a gentle ending.
Since the beginning, Corey’s novels have always been about the Churn. It’s a term he coined, and a difficult one to explain, but in essence it’s the idea that nothing ever stays the same. Dark times come and go, and so do good, good people die and empires fall and worlds and nations are born and fade away, and history finds a way to leave everyone behind in the end. The void of space, the expanse, is the only thing that survives, and even when forgotten heroes and “great men” rage, rage against the dark, none of it lasts forever.
As the oddly philosophical Amos Burton says, “When the rules of the game change. When the jungle tears itself down and builds itself into something new. Guys like you and me, we end up dead. Doesn’t really mean anything. Or, if we happen to live through it, well that doesn’t mean anything either.”
It would be easy for Corey to leave the churn in the series’ core, to grant readers one simple, happy ending, but then Leviathan Falls wouldn’t be as unsettling as it is. Even in this final volume, Corey offers up new ideas faster than ever before. Not only is the book the only full length Expanse novel to be narrated partially by a villain, it’s also, to my mind, the series’ darkest entry yet.
The insurmountable James Holden, who began his story nine books ago as a crusading hero who never knew doubt, spends most of this volume a shadow of himself, suffering from crippling PTSD after the events of Tiamat’s Wrath. And when the bloody battles of the Rocinante’s ongoing fight with the Laconian Empire get people killed, it’s not heroic or grand or inspiring. It’s a waste, a senseless tragedy of war. Even humanity’s confrontation with the “elder gods,” which The Expanse has been building to since its first volume, brings with it an entirely new idea on the literal bleeding edge: a horror story told from the inside of Colonel Tanaka’s rapidly fracturing mind.
It is, in other words, nothing like what I expected, and yet it still manages to be a thoroughly Expanse novel. When the Churn comes, when the world changes, people change with it, and Leviathan Falls shows us more clearly than ever who the crew of the Rocinante have become with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are heroes, yes, but still human, and their greatest moments don’t come on the battlefield.
Seen through the eyes of young Teresa Duarte, the crew’s new apprentice mechanic, the great James Holden is a scarred old man who history has left behind, and the one who will protect her from a great destiny that wants her back. And the Rocinante, the legendary ship at the heart of galactic history, is a beaten and aging gunboat with a war to lose, and her only home. Through her, we can see them anew: quixotic “old fart revolutionaries” who find their true calling in the way they stand against the inevitable and hold it back, in the way they protect each other, and in the way they choose to do the right thing, even when they lose.
The strength of The Expanse was never in where it was going, it was in the characters I got to meet along the way. Perhaps that’s why the scene that affected me the most wasn’t the grand battle, but the quiet moment when the strange little family of the Rocinante met to choose their path. They were all there, the same people they always have been, but haunted, wiser for having survived. When Naomi took the stage, the ghosts of her past were so clearly with her I could picture them in the room. The fleet admiral, the living legend, was the same woman who once told her son, “He put blood on my hands too. He thought it would make me easier to control.”
It’s that sense of lives lived, of having watched these characters grow and change over the course of so many books, that makes Leviathan Falls a tear-jerker. Instead of rising to their greatest battle, of cloaking themselves in fate and archetype, the heroes of the Rocinante become more fragile, more caring, more human.
They are not perfect heroes, and even Holden, arguably the series’ main character, doesn’t come out of the fight unsullied. Yet here at the end they are wholly themselves, flaws and all, and their edges have always been what made The Expanse as compelling and heartbreaking as it is. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending.