Babylon’s Ashes
James S. A. Corey
Orbit Books
Release Date:  December 6, 2016
ISBN 978-0-3163-3474-7

NOTE:  Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth book of James S. A. Corey’s superlative The Expanse series (out of a planned nine volumes). Before reading any further, realize that it’s virtually impossible to review book #6 without including spoilers for earlier installments. Therefore, if you haven’t yet read books #1 – #5 in The Expanse series, proceed at your own risk…

In Babylon’s Ashes, we are thrown right into the aftermath of the Free Navy’s assault on Earth. All of humanity has been affected, and nothing is the same – not for Earthers, not for those from Mars, and definitely not for Belters. For some, it’s a time for elation and uprising, for others, a desperate and unthinkable downturn. Even as many Belters are celebrating their heady reversal of fortune, thanks to the ruthless, charismatic leader of the Free Navy, Marco Inaros, many are realizing that strident political slogans cannot serve in place of unified and far-thinking goals. Thus, the fracturing begins.

Still, the rest of the solar system is reeling. Marco seems to not only be a step ahead of the efforts of the UN and the MCRN to reign him and the terrorist actions of the radical Belters in, but he is also zeroed in on settling his own personal grudges. This means first and foremost revenge against  Holden, who bested him, and Naomi, who betrayed him.  And then there’s the question of who will control access to the Ring, and therefore the colonies beyond…

After the dispersal of the crew in Nemesis Games, it’s a comfort to have Amos, Alex, Naomi and Holden back on the Rocinante. The action feels intimate again, even though the fate of the entire solar system is at stake. Pressed into the role of diplomatic escort, however, their ranks have expanded to include envoy personnel and representatives – the most familiar of which is Bobbie Draper, in a somewhat surprising but welcome role. Other characters from past books also show up, some as major players still (Fred Johnson, Chrisjen Avasarala, Michio Pa, Filip Inaros), and some that “merely” enhance the overall storyline – something that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck do especially well.

Listen, I’m not going to do an ins-and-outs review of the goings on in Babylon’s Ashes – if you’re far enough into the series for that kind of review to make sense, you’re already vested enough to keep going without it. What I did want to touch on, however, was just how prescient this story is to what is going on in our world today.

Much of the book deals with Marco Inaros, the megalomaniac who many of the downtrodden Belters see as leader and savior. He is smart, charismatic, and able to think outside the box, therefore staying a step ahead of his adversaries. But he also is quick to deflect any blame if something goes wrong, even to the point of alienating those closest to him. His personal ambitions are so much a part of who he is that he is blind to all else.  And he is a master at spin. When his ambitions aid the Belters, he is triumphant; when they are not, he is able to easily rationalize why they should be.

Sound like anyone we know?

Plus, one of the main themes of the book is how easy it is to incite violence against those who have been shunted into categories that can be labeled as “good” or “bad” as opposed to seeing them as ordinary human beings with ordinary wants and needs. When only the aberrations receive attention, it’s easy to think solely in terms of those aberrations. Whole groups cease to become human, and therefore easier to isolate, easier to exploit, easier to justify killing.

We’re in the midst of that mindset now. One example is that many Westerners’ knowledge of Middle-Easterners and Muslims is filtered through a miasma of radicalized and violent images from a ratings-driven media and expounded upon by fear-mongering politicians. Alternately, many people in the Middle-East only hear the world’s superpowers denouncing them and their religion even as megacorporations exploit them and their families, prop up their dictators and take away their resources. We don’t see each other as people – we are only the hated “other”.

This same mentality is prevalent in the political climate of The Expanse, and it’s something that grates on Holden (which is not unexpected given how we’ve come to know the character).  His disquiet comes to a head when one of his fathers calls Belters by the derogatory term “skinnies” in front of Naomi, something that Holden later discusses with Alex on the Rocinante:

“I thought if you told people facts, they’d draw their conclusions, and because the facts were true, the conclusions mostly would be too. But we don’t run on facts. We run on stories about things. About people. Naomi told me that when the rocks fell (on Earth), the people on Inaros’ ship cheered. They were happy about it.”

“Yeah, well.” Alex paused, rubbing a knuckle across his upper lip. “Consider they might all be a bag of assholes.”

“They weren’t killing people. In their heads? They were striking a blow for freedom or independence. Or making it right for all the Belter kids that got sh**ty growth hormones. All the ships that got impounded because they were behind on the registrations fees. And it’s just the same back home. Father Cesar’s a good man. He’s gentle and he’s kind and he’s funny, and to him Belters are all Free Navy and radical OPA. If someone killed Pallas (Station), he’d be worried about what the drop in refining capacity would do before he thought about how many preschools there are on the station. Or if the station manager’s son likes writing poetry. Or that blowing the station meant that Annie down in Pallas central accounting wasn’t going to get to throw her big birthday party after all.”

“Annie?” Alex asked.

“I made her up. Whoever. The thing is, I wasn’t wrong. About telling people the truth? I was right about that. I was wrong about what they needed to know. And…and maybe I can fix that. I feel like I should at least try.”

And this is why we love James Holden. He doesn’t just bemoan what he sees as injustice – he tries to do something about it. Sometimes, he solves the problem; sometimes, well… sometimes he starts a war.

Every time I dive into a new Expanse book, I wonder how Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck are going to keep the story moving, adding in new elements while continuing to work off the foundation of the previous novels. It seems like a herculean task. And yet, every time, they not only manage to pull it off, but to absolutely triumph in doing so.

Babylon’s Ashes continues the mastery of their created world, with an acumen and continuity of action, purpose and character that is simply breathtaking. The notion that a single person can tip the hand of fate is once again so artfully expressed, over and over, and yet manages to remain fresh and vital. The fantastic is plausible, defensible, and still often unexpected. The people – both named and less defined – are real, and they still break our hearts.

Once again, the only bad thing about this new book in The Expanse series, is that we now have to wait a year for the next one. Still, while I have no idea where the crew of the Rocinante is going next, I’m sure as hell signed on for the ride.

~ Sharon Browning

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