Corey, James S.A. Abaddon’s Gate.

NY: Orbit Books, 2013.

This third volume in “The Expanse” continues the frantic pace and high narrative quality of the first two. There’s been more than a thousand pages of exposition already, which makes it difficult to summarize what has come before. I’ll limit myself to saying that the alien “protomolecule” — machine or organism or whatever it is — has left Venus behind, sailed off to the orbit of Uranus, and built a vast ring, which can only be a gateway, a teleportation point to someplace far away.

We follow Capt. Jim Holden and his small, overworked crew on the private warship Rocinante as they continue to struggle to stay alive and make a living, and we meet some new major players as well.

There’s Carlos de Baca — “Bull” to his friends — who finds himself appointed chief of security on the vast ship sent by the Outer Planets Alliance to check out the Ring. (He ought to have been captain, or at least the XO, but he’s an Earther, so the politicians needed an acceptable figurehead.) Then there’s Melba Koh, low-level electronics tech helping to service the fleet Earth is sending to also investigate the Ring. Except that she’s actually Clarissa Mao, kid sister of the protomolecule’s first victim, and she blames Holden personally for Julie’s death. And she doesn’t care who gets in the way of her revenge. And then there’s the Rev. Anna Volovodov, a short, red-haired Methodist who has been dragooned into joining the Ring expedition by the UN, and who is going to have her life changed several times over.

And looming over everyone is the mystery of the Ring’s purpose. The protomolecule was launched into our solar system a couple billion years ago but got sidetracked, fortunately for our single-celled ancestors. And now that it seems finally to have completed its original mission, what happens next? Because it’s obvious that “the Ring was a way for something to get here. Not just a gateway. A beachhead.”

The authors (“Corey” is a joint nom-de-plume) do an amazing job not just with the action-filled plot, which tears along at a terrific rate, but with their deft development of the characters, even the minor ones. And they know when to flesh out the details of their future society and when to let the reader fill in the blanks himself. This is space opera, and writing, of unusually high quality.

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