Friday, April 27, 2018

Review - Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey

Short review: Earth is in ruins, Mars is in disarray, the OPA is divided against itself, and those are just the easy problems.

The Earth on fire
Humanity divided
Can Holden save us?

Long review: Babylon's Ashes is the sixth book in the Expanse series, and is essentially the second part of the story that was begun in Nemesis Games. As this novel opens up, the heroes have been reunited, but the Earth is still under siege and Inaros' splinter portion of the OPA still holds the alien gateway to the thousands of extra-Solar worlds. Even though Holden, Naomi, Alex and Amos are reunited, and Avasarala and Bobbi have survived to try to salvage something out of the wreckage of the inner planets, the "Free Navy" still seems to hold all the cards and our heroes still have their backs up against the wall.

The entire Expanse series of novels has a few themes running through it, and Babylon's Ashes is no exception. The only odd thing about this novel is that one of the themes is not "Holden makes any situation he comes into contact with worse", but the other - "Humans continue to try to kill one another in the  face of inscrutable alien technology" - is definitely to be found here. The grievances that caused Inaros' and his followers to launch their attack on Earth are rooted in the very existence of the alien gateway to the stars that has formed the core storyline that runs through the entire series. Fearful at being left behind now that they are no longer needed, Inaros' radical group of Belters leveraged the existing grievances the denizens of the outer planets had before the protomolecule opened up a thousand new worlds to colonize, and once they had obtained a sufficient power base, they lashed out and murdered hundreds of millions of people on Earth, essentially wrecking the planet (and in the process, almost unthinkingly dooming the people they claimed to be representing). The interesting twist on the running theme is that even though the inscrutable alien technology is the primary driver of the conflict in this novel, it doesn't really appear in it much. The novel is essentially about the consequences of introducing humanity to alien forces, but none of those consequences actually flow from the actions of the alien presence.

This novel continues the practice of rotating between viewpoint characters in each chapter, but unlike previous volumes, the range of viewpoint characters is not limited to a handful of critical individuals. Instead, there are at least seventeen viewpoint characters in this novel, including both Chrisjen Avasarala, Fred Johnson, and Marcos Inaros. The most frequent viewpoint characters are Holden, who is as close as this series has to a central protagonist, and Pa, one of Marcos' fleet captains, but we also have chapters told from the perspective of other familiar character such as Amos, Alex, Naomi, Prax, Bobbie, and even Filip. This works to show just how expansive the conflict is as it reaches across the entire Solar System and affects nearly every human within it, and also emphasizes that every previous element of the series has been leading to the events in this volume, Equally important to the breadth of characters featured is exactly who is featured - the viewpoints expressed come from all sides of the conflict, and in many cases, multiple social levels within each side, resulting in a multifaceted perspective on the interplanetary war. Using the rotating viewpoint has always been an element of this series, but in Babylon's Ashes, the rotating viewpoint is not merely an interesting literary device, it is an integral part of telling the story.

Much of the action in this book is centered on the ongoing war started in Nemesis Games. The book opens with the Earth still subjected to the asteroid bombardment that has killed billions, the Martian government in disarray, and the OPA so divided against itself that it is often difficult to determine who is friend and who is foe. While one might go into the novel feeling like the heroes should rise up in righteous rage and retaliate for the atrocities committed by Inaros' Free Navy, the authors don't let them have that easy of a solution, and that is what makes this story so very compelling. The plot turns as much on delicate political negotiations as it does on military strategy and derring do, which is perfectly in keeping with this series. The only drawback to this is that if one goes into this story expecting to see the villains punished and the virtuous vindicated, then you are likely to be disappointed. Attaining victory, or even something that resembles a settlement, requires compromise and sacrifice from everyone involved, and those who are unwilling to do either almost inevitably end up on the short end of the stick. Corey has created a harsh, unforgiving universe, and this is a harsh, unforgiving story.

Even though the Expanse series is destined to become a nine book series, this volume feels like the end of a major arc. Certainly it is the second half of the story started in Nemesis Games, but it is more than that. This book serves as an effective conclusion for most of the plot threads that have run through the series since Leviathan Wakes. Conflicts are resolved, allies and enemies die or are otherwise removed from the board, there are losses, victories, and compromises, and long-held secrets are forced into the open. This is not to say that there are no remaining mysteries to be solved: The inscrutable alien technology is still inscrutable, at least two inimical forces still lurk out in the void, and while the raging fires have been put out, one can still see the smoldering embers that litter the landscape of the Solar System. Ultimately, this book manages the difficult trick of being both an ending of a number of long-running story arcs, and a promise of a fresh set of new ones at the same time.

By the time a series reaches its sixth volume, it is relatively common for the series to begin to drift, with books filled with padding simply providing pages of nothing to increase the word count. With Babylon's Ashes, the Expanse has managed to avoid this fate. Instead, Corey grabbed all of the characters and plot threads that have been built up over the five previous books and wrapped them into a story filled with action and intrigue. After Babylon's Ashes everything about the Expanse is clearly going to be dramatically changed, but the series is in no danger of slowing down at all.

Previous book in the series: Nemesis Games
Subsequent book in the series: Persepolis Rising

2017 Hugo Longlist
2018 Locus Award Nominees

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