Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey
Here’s the short version of the review of James S. A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes (2016), book six in THE EXPANSE series: I’ve long considered THE EXPANSE my favorite science fiction series I’ve read as an adult, and Babylon’s Ashes does nothing to change that opinion. If you’ve read the other books (and if you haven’t, why are you reading this?), jump in with all confidence. The long version follows with major spoilers for prior novels.
Babylon’s Ashes picks up right after the operatically cataclysmic events of Nemesis Games and since those events included the deaths of billions and the wiping out huge swathes of industries and space navies, this novel is less involved, at its start at least, with large-scale action scenes. Instead, the solar system, and our characters, are exhaustedly picking up the shattered shards of the prior world and trying to fit them together in something, anything, that will allow for survival (hopes of reestablishing that prior world are long gone). And there are a lot of shards. Or as Holden’s group quickly sums up at one point:
So. Martian coup. Free Navy killing the shit out of Earth. Pirates stripping down all the colony ships that were heading out. Medina Station’s gone dark. And we-don’t-know-what eating some of the ships going through the gates… One damned thing after another… When it ain’t a whole bunch of damned things at once.
Holden and the Rocinante crew (Naomi, Amos, and Alex ) are central players in the fight by Mars and Earth against the Free Navy and their leader Marco Inaros (responsible for billions of deaths on Earth), which we see through the crew’s eyes. But compared to previous books in the series, Babylon’s Ashes greatly expands the number of POVs in a mix of the familiar and the new, including but not limited to: Chrisjen Avasarala, Clarissa Mao, Bobbie Draper, Filip (son of Marcos and Naomi), Michio Pa (a captain in the Free Navy), Fred Johnson, Anderson Dawes, Salis (on Medina Station outside the gates leading to the colony planets), a family of Earth refugees, and others. Almost 20 in total.
It’s true, the expansion of POV does create a bit of a distancing effect; Babylon’s Ashes is less consistently intimate than Nemesis Games on the whole. But it does not lack for instances of intimacy. Much of the first half is personal and introspective, focusing as much on character growth and relationship as on politics and events, and when the action picks up toward the latter third of the novel, those relationships remain important. Even as the stakes climb to as high as the survival of humanity, for instance, we’re just as (or more) invested in what happens to these people, as individuals and in their connections to each other.
Those characters we’ve spent so much time with feel smoothly familiar, like family as they might say, but like real family members, familiarity doesn’t preclude surprise (for us or their compatriots), allowing Babylon’s Ashes to feel just as fresh as book one or two. Meanwhile, the new characters both create a better understanding of the scale of events and also humanize those events. This series has always had a nice ability to zoom in and out at will, to move freely between quietly, minutely human moments and galactically spectacular events.
Some of those events and relationships come to a sense of resolution in this sixth book, for good and for ill, but those resolutions are almost never a return to “normalcy” or status quo. And of course, many questions remain wholly unresolved. Few series play a longer game than THE EXPANSE and Babylon’s Ashes makes that clear by wholly overturning the old world (s), often in surprising fashion, and setting us on the path, perhaps, toward finding something to replace it with. Ideally, something better.
Beyond plot and character, there’s little new to say about this book that I haven’t said about the the others. Despite the multiple POVs, transitions are fluid throughout; the prose is clear, precise, and effortless; dialogue remains a true joy; the action is vividly taut; and the book evokes a full range of emotions, from sorrow (yes, characters will die) to laugh out loud humor. All the reasons this is my favorite science fiction series and why I picked it up and didn’t put it down again until I was finished later that night. My only complaint is it ended. At least I have season two of the TV adaptation to tide me over a bit until Persepolis Rising comes out.