Series: The Expanse #6
Published by Orbit on December 6th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Format: Finished hardcover
The Expanse has become one of my favorite series in recent years, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has only gotten better with every new book. Of course, the one problem with this pattern is that it works much like gravity—what goes up must come down, after all. And yet, I say this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue that after a major plot event, it’s important to dial things back a bit in order to let your characters regroup, refocus, and rebuild (not to mention give time for the reader to digest the latest bombshell) and this is exactly the way I would describe the circumstances surrounding Babylon’s Ashes.
This sixth installment of the series is the immediate follow-up to Nemesis Games, directly addressing the events that happened in that book, so I would strongly recommend catching up before reading this review or others to avoid possible spoilers. If you’ve read the last novel though, then you’ll know that a new villain has come onto the scene in the form of the Free Navy, a violent group of rebels fighting in the name of Belters (a term that describes people born in or beyond the Asteroid Belt, a generally exploited and oppressed working class). Their leader, the charismatic Marco Inaros has just orchestrated the biggest, most devastating attack on Earth, killing millions. In the aftermath, he’s sowing even more chaos by setting his ragtag fleet on the vulnerable colony ships traveling through the ring gates to the new worlds on the other side.
It’s basically a nightmare scenario for Earth and its allies, who are still trying to help survivors and prevent more from dying due to the complete breakdown of infrastructure and governance. In their desperation, they reach out to James Holden, a man who in the past has been as much help to them as a hindrance, but the times are dire and they need all the support they can get. Captain Holden and the crew of the fast-attack ship Rocinante have a good track record of completing many dangerous missions and then surviving to tell the tale, so now they are being assigned one more: to break through to Medina Station at the entrance of the gate network and prevent it from falling to the forces of the Free Navy.
So how do you follow up a book like Nemesis Games, which is probably my favorite novel of the Expanse series so far? Well, I knew it was going to be tough. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Babylon’s Ashes took a step back from the action, using this installment as an opportunity to take a breather, looking at where everything is and where everyone stands. That’s not to say Babylon’s Ashes wasn’t a great book, because it was. However, its focus and pacing were also decidedly less intense and immediate. The first half was heavily dominated by system politics and character relationships.
Babylon’s Ashes also broke away from the usual tradition of following a set number of POVs (usually four, I believe), branching out instead to cover a greater number of character perspectives, many of whom we’ve seen before in the previous installments. There were pros and cons to this. From a positive standpoint, this opened up the book to greater possibilities. We got to see the solar system through many more pairs of eyes, getting a fuller sense of the political climate and state of affairs in the wake of the Earth attack. In addition, favorite characters like Chrisjen Avasarala, Clarissa Mao, and Bobbie Draper get a chance to chime in now and then with their own chapters. However, as a counterbalance to this, the greater number of POVs also served to dilute the focus of the main situation and arguably made the first half of the book a less emotionally engaging experience.
In fact, it wasn’t until the halfway point where something finally happened to really shake me up. It was a good reminder that things in the Expanse universe are always in motion, always changing. Important people die, major worlds are decimated, and yet the characters must evolve and adapt to survive the new reality. There’s really nothing negative I have to say about this book, other than the fact that as a villain, Marco was kind of wasted. Having learned nothing from the last book, he falls into the same predictable pattern, and it’s always a little disappointing to see a bad guy who suffers repeatedly from the same fatal flaw.
It will be interesting to see where the events of Babylon’s Ashes will take us next. Another chapter in the ongoing saga of Jim Holden and the Rocinante has come to an end, and if there’s one truth I have learned from my experience with the last six books, it’s that anything can happen in The Expanse, anything at all, and that is why I love this series.