In my humble opinion, James S. A. Corey's Hugo-nominated and New York Times-bestselling Expanse sequence is the very best ongoing science fiction series on the market today! I've said it before and I'll say it again. Indeed, this is space opera on a grand scale and as good as anything written by genre powerhouses like Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks, Ian McDonald, and Alastair Reynolds. With the first three installments, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two authors behind this pseudonym, managed to raise the bar higher and higher with each new release. Which is no small feat.
Sadly, with Cibola Burn they elected to forgo the formula that made the first three books such memorable reads and went for a different approach which didn't work as well. At least for me. My main gripe with the fourth volume was that it appeared to be some sort of interlude between the opening chapters of the series and what would occur in subsequent installments. Previous volumes were sprawling space opera affairs that hit all the right buttons. That book was much more limited in scope and was more of a transitional work. Then came Nemesis Games, which could be the best one yet!
Daniel Abraham once told me that the Expanse would be comprised of nine or ten books. If that's still the case, we have passed the halfway point of the series and the events chronicled within the pages of Nemesis Games have raised the stakes even higher. I was curious to discover the aftermath of such a catastrophe and was disappointed when the release date for Babylon's Ashes was postponed. But it was worth the wait! Like Cibola Burn, it is not as dense and multilayered as Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, and Nemesis Games. To a certain extent, this sixth installment works as a self-contained epilogue to the events and storylines that made Nemesis Games such an amazing read. True, everything that happens in Babylon's Ashes will have important repercussions in the rest of the series. Yet the plot is not as far-reaching and mysterious, and it has more to do with how the remnants of Earth and Mars ultimately respond to the terrorist attacks which killed millions of people.
Here's the blurb:
A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood. The Free Navy - a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships - has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them. James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network. But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny, and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.
As always, the fragile political balance between Earth, Mars, and the Belt, is at the heart of the story and threatens everything. It is even more fragile now that millions of people have died on Earth, and thousands keep dying everyday in the aftermath of the strikes. The planet is in shambles and it remains unclear whether or not mankind will ever be able to thrive again, or if our home world will have to be abandoned. Once more, I loved how Abraham and Franck handled the political facets of the various plotlines, as well as the grave repercussions the politicking generates in the greater scheme of things. I loved how the whole concept behind the Ring and what lies beyond would come to affect mankind so profoundly.
As Earth and Mars lick their wounds and thus can't overextend themselves for they must desperately protect what little they have left, this allows the Free Navy to prey on colony ships heading for the thousands of worlds that lie on the other side of the Ring. As I mentioned, the stakes have never been this high. With an unthinkable terrorist attack killing millions of people back on Earth, relationships between Earth, Mars, and the OPA will never be the same again. And before the Free Navy can consolidate its power and manoeuver in a position of even greater strength, Earth, Mars, and different factions of the OPA must somehow unite and forget old enmities to face the biggest threat in the solar system.
The characterization has always been the facet which makes the Expanse such a remarkable read. In the past, each volume features a more or less tight focus spread across a limited number of points of view. This allows readers to live vicariously through these perspectives. Babylon's Ashes, on the other hand, is made up of a slew of POVS, mostly from characters we've seen in previous installments. This works well for the most part, but it does rob this book of the more "intimate" feel of its predecessors. Having said that, I'm aware that at this juncture in the series we probably needed to see events unfold through the eyes of such a disparate cast of protagonists. Various perspectives are necessary to convey the sad state of affairs and the depth of desperation experienced by everyone involved on both sides of the conflict. Favorites such as James Holden, Chrisjen Avasarala, and Bobbie Draper return as POV characters. Alex, Naomi, Amos, Fred Johnson, Clarissa Mao, Anderson Dawes, and a few others also have their occasional points of view. Michio Pa, a captain in the Free Navy, offers what is by far the most interesting new perspective. Filip, confused and betrayed, goes through the full spectrum of emotions.
My only disappointment would have to be Marco Inaros. The charismatic genius who orchestrated Earth's destruction turned out to be a somewhat lame villain. After bringing Earth and Mars to their knees, the man becomes an incompetent nutjob with no strategy to speak of. As the series' main antagonist, he had so much promise. But to see him outwitted and outplayed so easily was disappointing. Given how Marco Inaros united the more radical factions of the OPA, got his hands on powerful ships from the Martian space fleet to create the Free Navy, and nearly destroyed planet Earth, it was sort of a waste to discover that he had so little substance and met his demise so easily.
Regardless of the fact that there might be too many points of view, there is no denying that Babylon's Ashes is hard to put down. It may not be the page-turner that Nemesis Games turned out to be, but the end of every chapter begs you to read the next one.
Like the previous volumes, even though it wasn't as sprawling a novel as some of its predecessors, Babylon's Ashes remains vast in scope and vision. The Expanse sequence, with its passionate and compelling characters, with its textured, detailed, and thoroughly imagined world, continues to be the most satisfying science fiction sagas on the market and is shaping up to be one of the very best space opera series of all time.
I feel that we have now reached a point where all the pieces are on the board. If there are indeed only three volumes left, with worlds decimated, important players dead, an increasingly more fragile political balance between the various factions of the solar system, thousands of worlds awaiting to be discovered beyond the Ring, and an ancient alien civilization that could destroy everything, the time has come for the authors to elevate their game even more and take us toward an endgame that promises to be spectacular.