Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes

In this blog post I continue with my book reviews of the fantastic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. This post contains spoilers but I recommend you still read on, at least a few paragraphs.

As it happens I accidentally read book seven (Persepolis Rising) before book six Babylon’s Ashes. Although I’m a huge fan of the series, I thoroughly encourage you to repeat my initial mistake (i.e. skip Babylon’s Ashes entirely).

It is quite telling that only once or twice in book seven I wondered if I’d missed something. Even then it was an… ‘okay maybe I forgot a character’s name…‘. Missing the book didn’t leave a huge gaping void; more like something I could forget about by the time I turned the page. If you skip book 6, you won’t miss much. (Although the book did score 4.5 stars on Amazon, so maybe this is just my opinion). I felt that nothing much happens and compared to the other books it’s a bit of a yawn-fest. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting insights I have to share about the book.

Unlike other books in the series, this book has a massive 19 Points-of-View (that is characters through whom we see the world, or in this case, the universe). The additional POVs did not improve my enjoyment of the story. Of the 55 chapters, Holden had 11, Pa had 10 and Filip had 7. That means there is a heck of a lot of characters who didn’t get many chapters. That left me feeling disconnected from the story and the characters. It gave me the unsatisfying ‘opportunity’ to spend time with characters I didn’t know or didn’t care about. It was time I’d rather spend with the characters I’ve grown to like throughout the series.

I think my opening paragraph shows what I think about this book: it shouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, I feel it weakens the series overall. If the plan behind so many POVs was to show the scale of devastation or the alternate perceptions of reality through the Sol system, a series of short stories would have been better. Too many POVs, especially with characters I had no affinity with.

I’m torn about the antagonist. In some respects the villain is good – Marco is a psychopath, which is shown repeatedly by the way he treats those around him as tools that serve his end-goals. And he is always ‘performing’ for the benefit of those around him. Those behaviours are consistent with sociopathy, which is why I lean toward the ‘like’ opinion, somewhat.

On the negative side, Marco is an emotionally driven, snake-oil salesman still pining decades later after his first love. As a villain he has no endearing qualities. He’s immature, vain, emotionally manipulative and, crucially, he’s also incompetent as a strategist and tactician. His plans fail more often than not, and we never actually see him win or succeed substantially. He has charisma – that is all. Not that I doubt the importance of charisma (see Hitler who was unimpressive, save for his charisma) but I don’t believe that Marco’s charisma is enough to command respect for long.

His stated goals are that the ‘Inners’ (Earth and Mars) would lose their stranglehold over the Belt, or that the Belt should have a turn to rule. But he never sells me on him believing it. A rule of writing is that even the villain must consider themselves the hero of their own story. Marco never sells it. Perhaps the weight of other character’s negative opinions – especially those whom we’ve learned to trust – just make his stated motivations appear as deep as a puddle. We know without a doubt his goals are ego-driven. And if he can’t convince me why should I believe that he managed to convince the thousands involved in his loosely-aligned army? Especially the army which was willing to commit to exterminate a significant portion of humanity and decimate the best source of resources in the solar system?

(Of course after reading book 7 I understand a little bit more how it might be plausible. There’s another antagonist behind the curtain who is pulling Marco’s strings… but that’s not good enough. Book 6 must be able to stand on its own… and it doesn’t).

Not only is Marco a complete jerk, maniac, sociopath, loser… he also through his actions dooms all of humanity. Oh wait! Hold the phone. I just realised Marco only gets 2 chapters. We were never supposed to come to like Marco or appreciate his POV, otherwise there’d be more chapters. Having that realisation though, changes nothing. A story needs a strong antagonist and Marco does not deliver.

There also seems to be a lot of plot holes. Pa Michio is an enemy general and yet she escapes punishment. On the contrary, she’ll become President to the Transport Union, effectively making her one of the most powerful people in the solar system. And that’s not negotiated from a position of strength, but rather just a suggestion. I’m not buying that either. And Holden, what happened to the anti-radiation drugs you have to have every few days? No mention of those in this book. And considering Belters don’t like gravity (the whole reason for this war in the first place), they seem to fair quite well in high-G space battles…

I’m not sure what the epilogue was either. It could have been cut out entirely. Maybe it was some kind of message of despair (prologue) becoming hope (epilogue). In contrast to the other book endings, it didn’t make me want to start on the next book straight away. The epilogue belongs on the editor’s cutting floor – not in the book.

There is a section in this novel which I found particularly clever. The key protagonist, James Holden, is trying to convince several potential allies that they should align themselves with him. None of these individuals would normally consider Holden to be ally-material. Though they are barely-touched-upon characters, they all have different agendas so there isn’t one point that will ‘win the room’. Dawes, another minor character, in a series of contiguous small scenes visits each of the characters individually and uses his influence and political nous to sway each of them. What makes this section particularly enjoyable is that Dawes arguments are entirely two-faced. As a negotiator he had traded convictions for victory. For example, Dawes finishes the scene telling one character ,

“There has to be a grown-up in that room,” he said. “Holden’s a puppy. We both know that. We need you there to keep him from f*ing everything up.”

Seconds later the next scene starts with,

“Holden’s the most experienced man in the system,”

He cajoules the next character with,

“But do it soon, because I will wager everything I have that even if he has to go to war by himself, James Holden will destroy Marco Inaros before this is done.”

To the next he says,

“He can’t do it alone,”

Dawes intellectually reasons with another,

“I know his reputation, but no one survives the things he’s survived without having a deep capacity for thoughtfulness and foresight. And more than that, strategy. Holden comes across feckless sometimes, truth, but he’s a thinker. What he’s doing? It’s all from the head.”

And then appeals to the emotions of the next with,

“You think he’s not angry?” Dawes said. “Holden is here as much for vengeance as you are. This is a man who acts from the gut, from the heart, before his head gets in the way.”

The series of scenes end with:

“Every time Holden takes a breath, Marco Inaros suffers,” Dawes said. And that was probably as close to truth as anything he’d said in the last two days.

A highly enjoyable series of scenes showing the full political-chameleon on display.

This has been a long post, so I will share only the very best highlights I made from this book:

  • but no matter the shade of their skin or the texture of their hair, ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all.
  • The harbormaster didn’t hug him back. He looked like a man holding his breath and hoping something dangerous wouldn’t notice him as it passed by.
  • There was an excitement in their voices. Some of it was their fear dressing up in party clothes,
  • Every atrocity that has been done to us had someone behind it who thought what they did was justified.
  • 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.
  • But Earth and Mars had kept the labor here on a leash made of soil analogues and complex organics.
  • “We beat Earth,” Filip said. He’d meant it to seem like an offhand comment. Something thrown into the conversation almost at random. Instead, he sounded shrill and defensive, even to himself.
  • Vandercaust nodded, as much to himself as to the boy. Time to pick his handholds careful. Whatever they were spun up over, this was the time he’d land in it if he spoke the wrong words.
  • The only ones not to speak were Amos, smiling his amiable and meaningless smile
  • Carlos Walker, still and silent and unreadable as language in an unknown alphabet.
  • If wars began with rage, they ended with exhaustion.

The interesting words in this book: refutation, pentameter, tardigrades, reperfusion, atavistic, epicanthic, demimonde, milquetoast, abrading, materiel, basal, spelunked, vestigial, orthogonally .

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