The fall out just keeps on falling out as rocks continue to shower the Earth, and shaky alliances begin to crumble. While billions starve and the few control the future of the many, will anyone realise that – against all odds – humanity may not be the only threat to its own survival?
Hands up: I’ve left it far too long to try and marshal my thoughts on Babylon’s Ashes – long enough that I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t reread it before trying to write about it (and oh, what a terrible shame that would be). On the other hand, that’s perfect for non-specific spoiler-free flailing!
Babylon’s Ashes picks up where Nemesis Games left off: rocks set in motion by Marco Inaros and the Free Navy are still falling towards Earth; the forces of Earth, Mars and the OPA are still reeling – but at least the little family of the Rocinante are together again, if far from safe. And the hard truth is that there’s no longer anywhere safe in the Solar System. The Free Navy has weaponised the Belt itself, and their canny combination of propaganda and brute force is winning the battle for hearts and minds off-planet.
However, you can’t let a little thing like a genuine fear that the entire human race is about to die hold you back (and nobody has ever managed to hold Avasarala or Jim Holden back anyway). It’s time for an epic, sprawling war story of a book to see who is left standing at the end.
I don’t mind admitting it was comforting knowing there was at least one more book of The Expanse to come (in fact, there are three), so it seemed unlikely that it would literally be a simple case of ‘rocks fall, everybody dies’ (although hats off to Corey for turning that into a centrepiece plot). However, given what Corey has been willing to do in the past – not to mention his close association with a certain Mr Martin – I’m never confident that more books means my favourites surviving to star in them.
And Babylon’s Ashes is unique in departing from the tried-and-tested approach to POVs, which isn’t reassuring: it has all the POVs. No really, all of them. In addition to visiting with old friends and family, it gives space to antagonists and allies from previous volumes – and, eventually, to the villains-in-chief themselves, Marco and Filip Inaros.
This could have been an enormous turn-off for me – I’m generally a fan of a tight narrative – but Corey pulls it off with aplomb. This allows him to keep us in the front seat for the highly distributed action (and honestly, I don’t think he could have made us aware of some of the tensions and subplots in any other way) and to give us an up-close-and-personal understanding of what makes the Inaros boys tick. In our read-along last autumn, I called Corey brave for centering violent extremists – I still think that’s true. It was so easy to hate Marco Inaros in Nemesis Games, and to roll my eyes at Filip’s juvenile character flaws.
Now we get to see behind the masks and… well, it didn’t necessarily change how I felt about either of them (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: reading his POV left me with a burning desire to see Marco vaporised, so that worked out well) but it added more nuance than I expected – and, at least in Marco’s case, upped an ante that felt like it had already been jacked up beyond bearing.
However, I adored seeing Pa’s perspective (and Anderson Dawes). Apart from the fact I found her an interesting character in Abaddon’s Gate, she gives us space to understand just how splintered the OPA is. The Free Navy acted on the Belt’s worst impulses, but Belters are not a monolithic culture – and they are less committed to Marco’s cause (which is Marco, however well he sells something more when the cameras are rolling) than to their continued survival.
I loved that a major thread of this novel was about the logistics of keeping humanity fed and watered. Marco makes shocking decisions (his ‘strategy’ for Ceres left me incandescent with rage), but Pa and others show that there is still room for common sense and compassion. Also a spot of space piracy with your husbands and wives (yes, I loved everything about Pa). Similarly, the return of Praxidike Meng (HALLO PRAX) presented a lovely subplot of gentle resistance and the many forms courage can take.
I got least from the chapters on Medina, which were a little too piecemeal (I might have managed better with a single POV on station) – but then I was blown away by the final act. Babylon’s Ashes is relentlessly tense, and I was impressed – and in pieces – by Corey’s willingness to just keep stripping away any hope from his protagonists, and exploring their responses.
…which brings us to Naomi. I actually can’t think or write about her without bursting into tears at this point, so all I’m going to say is: we do not deserve Naomi. Jim certainly doesn’t, and he knows it. And on a personal level, I am still aglow that their relationship is upheld as being just as meaningful (if not more so) for their not being married.
I wasn’t sure how Corey could possibly follow up Nemesis Games, but Babylon’s Ashes is a worthy sequel, further cementing The Expanse as one of my favourite space operas.