Orbit | 2016 (8 December) | 538p | Review copy | Buy the book
For the last few years it has been my absolute pleasure to lose myself at regular intervals within the Expanse. There are few novels I look forward to quite as much as these and the Expanse is now well-established as my favourite running science fiction series. Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth in the series and, while you could enjoy it as a standalone book, I really advise against it. Each of the books is very different but each complements the others and broadens even further this brilliantly imagined future world and solar system. As a whole, they form the story of Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Whatever goes on around the crew, however extraordinary it might be, the heart of the series lives aboard the Rocinante. It is an utter delight to follow their adventures as they do their utmost to save humanity from itself – and from something else. Do read the books in order. This review assumes you’ve done just that.
The war in the solar system continues with Earth, the mother world of mankind, now all but destroyed by the militant forces of the Free Navy, an organisation that claims to act on behalf of the Belters, the inhabitants and miners of the industrial outer planets and the asteroid belt. Many humans have sought escape on the planets beyond the strange gate complex but these new fragile colonies rely on supply ships from the solar system for survival – these ships have become the target for Marco Inaros, the leader of the Free Navy. Mars and Earth have formed an uneasy alliance in the effort to fight back and who better to lead their enterprise than the infamous Captain Jim Holden, regarded as hero by many and traitor by others? The battle lines are drawn aound the Medina Station at the entrance to the gate network, a place so alien it may never be understood, never be tamed.
As anyone who’s read the Expanse series knows, these are no ordinary military SF novels. Each of these books is strongly character-driven and Babylon’s Ashes is no different. Jim Holden is a wonderful figure who has evolved over the course of the novels as the responsibilities have weighed ever heavier on his shoulders. He always has a smile for his crew. He inspires them. But they know him well and can see the cares that lie below. There’s something so touching about the way that he gathers video and audio clips of people living ordinary lives to try and prove to a solar system at war that every one within it is a human being. It’s great to see some of our much-loved characters again, including my favourites Bobbie and Avasarala. And there’s another figure from the past, too – Captain Michio Pa, whom we first met in Abaddon’s Gate. And she is fantastic.
The novels might depict dark and frightening events but ultimately the message is one of hope, compassion and humanity. And this is achieved by making us care so deeply for the crews of the ships that we travel aboard. The crews of the Rocinante and the Connaught view themselves as families – the Connaught crew actually is a family with members forming one marriage. There are other dysfunctional examples of family aboard the principal Free Navy vessel for contrast but the overriding message is that a harmonious family, however unconventional its composition, can prop up society. But what a battering it’s going to take.
As usual in the Expanse series the chapters flit between the different characters, allowing us to move around the conflict and see what life has become on planets, on ships, on space stations, and in the presence of the awe-inspiring gates. The action sequences are deadly and thoroughly exciting but the thrill of Babylon’s Ashes extends beyond the combat because of the intensity of the crisis facing this poor solar system. This is a series with big vision!
Each of the books is different but in them all we can’t forget the protomolecule and the threatening alien shadow. Anything is possible in the future for Holden, his ship and crew, and the people of Earth, the inner planets, the Belt and the colonies so far away. This is a spectacular series and I can’t wait to see where James S.A. Corey and the Rocinante take us next.