Babylon’s Ashes by James S A Corey
I spent about a year working through The Expanse books and to be honest I don’t really mind the break before the next one. Babylon’s Ashes is very much Nemesis Games 2. All the other Expanse books have been fairly self-contained in setting and story, whilst building towards the larger whole. For example, Abaddon’s Gate concerned itself with Medina Station and the Slow Zone and Cibola Burn with the colony of Ilus, but, for better or for worse, Babylon’s Ashes follows on pretty much directly from Nemesis Games.
Earth is still reeling from the devastating attack from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy, who now seek to consolidate their hold on the Belt and Medina Station, to ensure that the colony gates cannot be used. There are a lot of PoV characters in this one, but the core story lines converge around about three. One is Filip Inaros, son of Marco and Naomi Nagata and orchestrator of the attack on Earth, who now finds himself questioning the competence of his father and his place in the Free Navy, whilst burdened with the unimaginable loss of life he has caused. Next is Michio Pa, returning form Abaddon’s Gate, now a Free Navy captain who goes rogue after Marco’s decisions become more and more erratic. Finally, obviously, we have Holden, desperately trying to hold the system together and re-unite the Inners and the Belters.
Where previous books were strict about numbers of PoV characters, Babylon’s Ashes relaxes this significantly. There are still a few who dominate, but there are also a handful of chapters from characters like Bobbie Draper, Clarissa Mao, Avasarala and Prax Meng, as well as all of the Rocinante crew. There’s a looseness to the structure which feels intentional but not quite successful. For example, the events on Medina Station are shown through four different one-off PoVs, which only has the effect of not allowing us to get particularly attached to any of them. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to return to so many fan favourite characters, but a lot of the time (with the notable exception of Prax who gets a decent subplot of his own) it feels superfluous. This is a book where it felt like a lot was happening, but when it came to actually running through the complete events of the book I realised it was a bit lacking. It also, as with Nemesis Games, pretty much entirely ignores to protomolecule/ancient alien civilisation plot. I have full confidence that following books will return to it, but that’s two books now which lack the most interesting part of the series.
The role of these two books, Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes are clear, to overturn the status quo and install a new one as the series enters its final stretch. I see the narrative necessity, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting to read. They remind me a fair bit of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, books which have also been criticised for pacing and existing largely for place setting. The thing is though, I’m a defender of those books as Martin’s characterisation is so good that following a wonderful character like Brienne of Tarth wandering around for 8 chapters doesn’t bore me. Abraham and Franck aren’t quite in the same league, but who is?
The characterisation is still solid enough, although some character moves are unconvincing. I like Clarissa Mao but her redemption arc feels a bit rushed. Marco didn’t really work for me as a villain; I see what they were going for, he’s like Che Guevara crossed with Osama Bin Laden, but he ends up feeling more like Donald Trump, a blow-hard appealing to populist idiots and fuelling anger to power his own rise. He’s going to Make the Belt Great Again, but the details for exactly how that will work are sketchy at best. Holden is pretty much static as a character by this point, but that’s fine, I quite like him existing as a paragon of ridiculous goodness. I miss proto-Miller though; a bitchy ghost commenting on everything he does certainly livened up his chapters.
Babylon’s Ashes isn’t awful by any stretch, but I’m certainly glad that this subplot is over now. My hope is that the final trilogy of books double down on the protomolecule stuff after its two book absence. As underwhelmed as I was, this wasn’t enough to put me off the series. If I can power through the middle Wheel of Time books I can power through anything. Hopefully, as with Wheel of Time, the conclusion is worth it.