Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse: Book #6), by James S.A. Corey — a review

Book #7 in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series is waiting for me in my library closet. Its title is Persepolis Rising, and it kicks off the final three-book story arc of the series.

I could begin reading it today if I so desired. I’m an adult. A grown-ass man. In the regional vernacular of my youth, I’m old enough to eat cornbread and milk without choking. I paid for the book. I own the book. Nothing is stopping me from reading it.

Nothing, it seems, except for these silly rules I always make up for myself.

You see, I never wrote a review of Book #6, Babylon’s Ashes, after I finished reading it last year. I had written reviews of the first five novels in the series. But, I never got around to the sixth.

[editor’s note — Firewater also never wrote a review of the final season of the Amazon Prime Video series The Expanse. Much of the storyline of that season is based on Babylon’s Ashes. I’m sensing a pattern here.]

I have to ask myself why. I’ve learned that I always have reasons for both doing and not doing certain things, even if I’m not always certain what those reasons are. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that Babylon’s Ashes wasn’t my favorite entry in this long series.

That much is true. I liked Nemesis Games. It became my favorite book in the series after I read it, which was also true for each preceeding book. It more than earned its Firewater’s Report Card Grade of A. I honestly didn’t believe that I would like it as much as I did, because I watched the events of the Amazon Prime Video streaming series based upon the novel prior to reading it. On the Prime series, I didn’t like the way our found family, the crew of the Rocinante, was split up during the story, each the star of their own individual story arc (“individual,” yes, but always connected). However, in the novel itself, I liked getting to know the crew of the Rocinante more intimately, with each crewmember getting their own viewpoint chapters throughout.

Nemesis Games went very dark and stayed there, the events of the novel forever changing the trajectory of the entire series. At least that’s my assumption.

Babylon’s Ashes, as the conclusion of the duology begun in Nemesis, would have to suffer in the comparison. It is more sprawling than its predecessor. Less intimate. With more viewpoint characters. It includes all the necessary reaction scenes to the events of the previous novel. Marcos Inaros, the leader of the Free Navy and Naomi Nagata’s baby-daddy, has seriously broken the Sol system. Earth and Mars end up leaning upon each other to get through this, while the Belters suffer for the actions Marcos had taken in their name. Parts of this novel were a bit of a slog to get through, only slightly more entertaining than all the Trade Federation stuff in the Star Wars prequels.

This reads more harshly than I intended, because I do find all the political and sociological ramifications detailed in the book fascinating. It broadens the scope of the series and makes the entire story seem even more huge.

I’m not going to spoil things for you if you haven’t read this book yet. I hate it when I spoil things for myself by reading reviews. I will tell you that the back half of the novel shows us in great detail how the rest of the solar system deals with the Free Navy problem. This part of the novel is suitably bombastic and, in fact, pays for the more plodding parts of the first half.

If you’re a fan of the Prime Video series, you know that Alex Kamal was killed off with a space-travel induced stroke. This was because the actor Cas Anvar was fired over allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. The character Alex in the novel doesn’t die. I know this is a spoiler as well, but it’s a good one, so don’t hate me for sharing it. Another character in the novel does die the same way Alex died on the streaming series. I’m not going to tell you who, though, to preserve the suspense.

You don’t read six books in a series (and look forward to reading the final three) without being a fan. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who collaborate under the pen name “James S.A. Corey,” have achieved something great with this series. Its scope and pervading feeling of momentousness remind me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series, especially the original trilogy. This space opera that originated during the Golden Age of Science Fiction has always been one of my favorites.

Here’s where The Expanse improves upon Asimov. While this modern space opera has all the big ideas and concepts you would expect from such a grand tale, it remains character driven. You care about the characters. I can’t say that Asimov really pulled off this trick. Maybe a little, when he continued the series in the ’80s, but certainly not during the 1950s.

The characters I care about the most in Babylon’s Ashes are the crew of the Rocinante. I enjoyed reading the book the most when these were the viewpoint characters. Otherwise, the story sometimes felt a little too sprawling to me. Unfocused, even.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. It just adds to the reasons this has been my least favorite book in the series so far. All of the other entries have earned a sold A from me. Leviathan Wakes may have even been an A+. I didn’t begin including my report card grades until Abaddon’s Gate. Several of my friends have mentioned that they felt the same way about Cibola Burn, but I enjoyed that one as well. Each novel has taken a different approach with the material. I may have gotten bored with the series if it had remained a space noir like Leviathan.

Enough hemming and hawing. Here’s the grade.

Firewater’s Stories-About-Wars-Come-After Report Card Grade: A-

See? Not such a drastic difference, right? One of these novels had to become my least favorite. So far, at least.

I’ve paid the fare. Now I can start reading Persepolis Rising. I am so happy.


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