I am an avid listener of audiobooks, as this review series should make clear. Out of all of the audiobooks I’ve consumed, however, there have been very few occasions in which I’ve been treated to the rare unicorn that is a lengthy book series (bigger than a mere trilogy) that achieves the joint pinnacles of storytelling and narrative performance. When I find these unicorns, I tend to listen to them over and over and over. These include the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and narrated by Jim Dale (There is also a version narrated by Stephen Fry that is delightful.) and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King and narrated by Frank Muller and George Guidall.
The latest series to join this happy, little group is The Expanse by James S.A. Corey (the joint pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Since discovering this series a couple of years ago, I’ve listened to all eight books published so far in the series twice through and have firm plans to listen through at least one more time before the final book in the series is released next year.
The Expanse is an epic science fiction story set in a future in which humanity has colonized our entire solar system and in which political factions now occupy whole planets and regions of space. The Expanse checks off all of the boxes in my love of science fiction: a realistic treatment of space travel, an intrepid crew of explorers living together on an amazing spaceship, as well as the alluring and potentially dangerous possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life.
The Expanse is one of the rare opportunities in which I've experienced a story in three different mediums. I have read the books, listened to the audiobooks, and watch the TV series which currently streams on Amazon Prime. I love this opportunity to be able to explore a story I love from so many different directions. Out of all of these mediums, though, my favorite is the audiobook. This is due in no small part to a stellar performance by the narrator, Jefferson May.
I should say right up front that it's a rare thing to have so many books out of the same series be performed by the same narrator. Issues with scheduling talent, lengthy gaps between the publication of books, and the unpredictability of life in general can all conspire against a single performer being attached to a series. Individual titles in The Expanse have happily been released every one to two years, keeping the production span within a single decade (unlike The Dark Tower, for instance, which was spread out over 22 years, or Game of Thrones which started in 1996 and currently has no predictable date for its next publication).
As such, Jefferson Mays has had the wonderful opportunity to settle into and perfect his delivery of these stories over the course of eight books so far. (There is no reason to believe he will not be attached to the ninth and final book.) Not that Mays has exhibited much of a learning curve. From the very first chapters of The Expanse, Mays has given his listeners a pitch-perfect portrayal of all facets of this complex universe. This has been no small feat, as evidenced by the need to master a language and accent entirely made up for this future society.
It is a testament to the meticulous attention paid by Corey to the unique language of the “Belters,” the oppressed working class inhabitants of the outlying regions of the solar system, on the other side of the asteroid belt from the “Inner” planet neighborhoods of Earth, Luna, and Mars. The population of the Belt is made up people from every imaginable culture and race. The need to merge dozens of languages into a workable unified dialect resulted in an entirely new Creole tongue. As they moved into the development of the TV series, Corey brought in an expert in linguistics to flesh out the details of the Belter patois. Belter has subsequently joined the list of fandom languages, like Klingon and Dothraki, that is studied and spoken by devotees of the books and show alike. The best way to absorb your way into the Belter culture, perhaps, is by listening to Jefferson Mays give his expert demonstration of their spoken language.
The heart of The Expanse is the collection of misfit characters who come together to form the unlikely, but tight-knit, family that is the crew of the Rocinante. They represent all of the factions found in this future solar system. Jefferson Mays inhabits this crew seamlessly from book to book. Whether by design or happy accident, I have also found these characters to be very similarly portrayed across medium, as well. The James Holden in the audiobooks sounds and feels much the same as the James Holden in the TV series.
Over the course of this wide-ranging epic tale, Mays never fails to perfectly portray all of the characters in this story. He does this regardless of gender, age, or accent. Drop into any book, at point, and you will experience a uniformly masterful performance. He excels equally at the quiet character moments, fast-paced action sequences, and exposition-heavy sections of physics and politics. And it is all of this meticulous, seamless excellence that puts The Expanse - the audiobooks in particular - into the top ranks of science fiction.
Footnote: The published titles in The Expanse series to date are as follows: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes, Persepolis Rising, and Tiamat’s Wrath. The ninth and final book in the series, Leviathan Falls, has been announced by Orbit Books and should hit bookshelves sometime in 2021. There are also currently eight short stories and novellas available in hardcover and audiobook formats, as well as four digital comics from BOOM! Studios. Also available: The Expanse Board Game from WizKids and The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin Publishing.