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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Nemesis Games

This post is about my thoughts and favourite quotes from Nemesis Games by the authors known as James S A Corey. Nemesis Games is book five of The Expanse series. (It’s pretty much spoiler-free).

(My similar posts on earlier books in the series can be found here: Leviathan Wakes, Leviathan Wakes #2 – Caliban’s War – Abbadon’s Gate, and Cibola Burn).

Nemesis Games was an enjoyable ride; and I suspect, will be re-read in the future. One of the things that I loved about this novel was it took the reader in a new direction. Whimsically put, it asked the eternal question of ‘what happens to the cowboy, when you take away his horse?’

For the past four novels we’ve had the crew of the “Roci” flying around together, saving the day. Sometimes it was fending off the life-destroying advances of an alien organism and other times hampering the plans of Dr Evils. Often both at the same time. The important point was it always the crew working together: Alex piloting with finesse, Naomi fixing stuff, Amos breaking heads and Holden being optimistic and drinking coffee. The crew did their thing and the good guys one, even if it took a toll on them and the ship in the process. So what happens while their beloved ride, home and useful giant-gun, the Roci, is spending quality time in the ‘dry dock’?

“The construction sphere of Tycho Station glittered around Holden, brighter than stars. Ships hung in their berths in all states of undress, the Rocinante just one among many.”

First Amos had “a thing” to do back on Earth. Then Alex wanted to go to Mars to apologise to his ex, and Naomi has an urgent, private and dangerous trip she needs to make to Ceres station. Holden finds himself alone on Tycho. This book is one where their personal universes do somersaults. They’re separated and each trying to do the best they can alone; they’re a close knit family, separated by hundreds of millions of miles of space. Each of the crew get their own point-of-view, which is cool to spend time in their heads.

Back in the first book, Holden comments on the fact that they’re all on the ice hauler, the Canterbury, because everyone has a past. No one with their level of competency signs up for the grueling dead-end job unless they were running from something. In this novel Corey peels back layers of each crew member’s past.

One thing that strikes me upon reflection is how I feel about the characters. I have a greater sense of warmth toward them, at only book 5, than I did toward Rand et al in the 14 books of the Wheel of Time. Why is that? I think part of it is because in WOT the characters are often working against each other, at least somewhat. Whether it’s their personality or the conflicts of their occupations, they aren’t one big happy family. The team of the Roci, meanwhile, is always fiercely guarding each other… which is part of what endears them to me. Perhaps that’s unfair, given they are often separated from each other? Maybe it’s the genre. In WOT, fantasy, the characters are powerful, and perhaps more un-relatable. In The Expanse they’re all ‘human’, with no super powers, and therefore more relatable.

The world that Corey has created is futuristic: technology changes things, big and small. The languages, idioms and behaviours have all developed over time. For example, on Earth, “pimps” are now “walkers”. It’s a clever technique of writing – making the culture shift slight enough to be different without losing the association the reader will place on it.

Another important thing I noted is that there should always be edge cases when humans are involved. What do I mean by that? If disaster is coming not everyone will choose to move out of it’s way. People are complex. Sometimes we even make irrational decisions (or at least they appear to be so). Making world’s real mean that sometimes a few people should act in surprising way. We may be herd animals to a degree, but there should always be outliers.

My favourite highlights:

  • the mythology of manifest destiny hides a lot of tragedy.
  • Amos laughed. “Let me get a preemptive I – told – you – so in here. Since when that turns out not to be true, like it always does, I might not be there to say it.”
  • The long – haul transport was named the Lazy Songbird, but its birdlike qualities began and ended at the white letters painted on its side. From the outside, it looked like a giant garbage can with a drive cone on one end and a tiny ops deck on the other. From the inside, it looked like the inside of a giant garbage can except that it was divided into twelve decks, fifty people to a deck.
  • He worked his face for a minute, trying to find a version of his smile that didn’t scare little old men.
  • the last vestiges of youth falling from her and the first comfortable heft of middle age creeping in.
  • It felt a little like watching a hunting cat track a steak.
  • The words seemed to carry more nuance than they could bear, as if the simple logistical facts also meant something about why she’d left. About who they were to each other. It was like she could feel the words creaking…
  • Alex’s experience of real family – of blood relations – was more like having a lot of people who had all wound up on the same mailing list without knowing quite why they signed up for it.
  • “What did you do? ” Fred asked.
    “There was a button,” Holden said. “I pushed it.”
    “J*** C***. That really is how you go through life, isn’t it?”
  • The guard’s head hung slack and boneless in a way that clarified the situation.
  • The aliens that sent the protomolecule hadn’t needed to destroy humanity. They’d given humans the opportunity to destroy themselves, and as a species, they’d leaped on it.
  • Thing about civilization, it’s what keeps people civil. You get rid of one, you can’t count on the other.”
  • She rattled down the hallway like dice in a cup,
  • In the hangar, the Razorback hung in clamps built to accommodate ships much larger than she was. It was like seeing an industrial lathe with a toothpick in it.
  • But looking back through history, there are a lot more men who thought they were Alexander the Great than men who actually were.
  • “Can I get you one?”
    “More of a tea man, myself,” the other captain said. “If that’s an option.”
    “Don’t know that I’ve ever tried.”
    “No? ”
    “There was always coffee.”
  • “Thank you, Mister Patel,” Holden said. “In thanks, you may now have all my stuff. I don’t care about any of it anymore.”
    “Including the coffee maker, sir?”
    “Almost all my stuff.”
  • A funeral shroud was over the planet, and they all knew what was happening beneath it.
  • “How bad does that look?”
    “We’re not making any official statements, especially when James Holden’s in the room. No offense, but your track record for blurting information at inopportune moments is the stuff of legend.”
    “I’m getting better about that,” Holden said. “But yeah. I understand.”

And some good words: sclera, maw, gobbets, malefic, atavistic, taupe, albedo, substrate, wheedling, feckless, supine.

A Feast of Reading

I’ve had several weeks holiday recently and read a number of fiction books. In this post I’ll provide some of my thoughts on them – some touched on briefly, and others with more detail. This list includes Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey, The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly and Murder Mile by Linda La Plante.

I couldn’t help myself, there are some spoilers.

Continue reading

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Some time ago, the beautiful Mrs Ezard and I sat down to watch The Expanse on Netflix. Being a bit of a scifi fan, I’m always keen to try something new. I’ve probably mentioned it before, with new shows we have a three-episode rule. That is, a show has three episodes to prove itself to us. In my recollection, The Expanse didn’t get a fair hearing; Mrs Ezard opened the airlock and jettisoned the show part way through the first episode. Which of course doesn’t stop me from watching the show, but it does make it less likely (as I tend to do it when she’s not around).

When season 2 of The Expanse came out, I thought I’d give it another go. A show that makes it over the first season obviously has some chops. (As was my theory at the time, although now I think about it there are plenty of shows which I think are terrible and are multi-seasons. Like Lost… in which a whole host of people find themselves spending hundreds of hours of their life to watch a show which actually has very little in the way of coherent or honest-with-the-audience story).

So anyway, I digress. When season 2 came out I gave it another go, and this time really liked it. Perhaps at the time when we originally watched it we just weren’t in the right frame of mind.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the noir detective type characters. The underdog who ends up saving the day, and is a bit uncouth while doing it. One of my partial drafts sitting in my metaphorical manuscript drawer is a noir detective.

And then one day at work I was on a resupply run (coffee) and saw someone reading a book that mentioned The Expanse. She very helpfully explained that The Expanse was based on a series by James S. A. Corey and that in fact the books were better than the show. (FYI: James S. A. Corey is actually the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Always on the lookout for a good series to sink my eyes into, I made a note of the name and said I’d come to it after I finished reading The Wheel Of Time series.

Then the time came and I bought the book and started reading it, devouring the book within a few days. Leviathan Wakes (which is obviously book 1 of the series) is an excellent read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would describe the book as a blend of space-based detective novel with a light-dusting of military scifi.

(Seems to how I’m recommending the book as a good read, I should add there is significant swearing. Fu: 89, Sh: 106 Bi: 13, Ba: 29. Perhaps it speaks to how engaging the book is, I didn’t really notice the swearing much as I was reading it. I’ve already read the second book and will be posting more about the language in that post).

I’m far from an astrophysicist, but the descriptions of gravity, space travel, space battles and the constraints placed on non-Earth colonies seemed good to me. There was enough detail that it sounded authentic, without me needing a science and maths degree to comprehend what they were saying. The conditions that the people lived in actually changed their lives. For example, the locals in ‘the belt’ had developed bodily-movements which replaced facial gestures (because when you’re in a space suit, facial gestures don’t work).

It was a real book-onion skin pages bound in what might have been actual leather. Miller had seen pictures of them before; the idea of that much weight or a single megabyte of data struck him as decadent.

It’s little things like differing behaviours and perspectives, which don’t actually effect the plot-line but do give the story depth.

I’ve previously written that I thought cliffhangers at the end of every chapter were a bad idea. This book has changed my position on that. Every single chapter ended with something that had me checking the time to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. A cliffhanger – or better described – something that makes me want to know what happens next is a good thing. (Also note the chapters are small ~normally a chapter was about 10 minutes reading time).

Speaking of chapters I noticed that the chapter titles follow a pattern e.g. “Chapter 1: Miller” will be from Miller’s point of view. However, even though the chapter title tells us who the Point Of View (POV) is, very often that is still re-iterated within the first sentence or two. Which I think is a good practice.

Interestingly, every chapter perfectly alternates between the two main POVs, the prologue and epilogue having a different POV. The same character never gets two chapters in a row.

Here are a few of my favourite highlights:

Descriptors:

  • Alex and Amos drank like sailors; a finger full in the bottom of the cup, tossed back all at once. Alex had a habit of saying “Hooboy!” after each shot. Amos just used a different profanity each time. He was up to his eleventh shot and so far had not repeated himself.
  • When Alex threw down the throttle and a roomful of elephants swan dived onto his chest.

Dialogue:

He hesitated for one second, then pressed the button to execute. The ship failed to vaporize.
“I guess Fred wants us alive, then” he said. Naomi slumped down with a noisy, extended exhale.
“See, this is why I can’t ever be in command,” she said.
“Don’t like making tough calls with incomplete information?”
”More I’m not suicidally irresponsible,” she replied.

And

“There’s a right thing to do,” Holden said.
“You don’t have a right thing, friend,” Miller said. ”You’ve got a whole plateful of maybe a little less wrong.

“He looks at his soul, sees the stains, and wants to be clean,” he said. “But you? You just shrug.”

And some interesting words:

  • iconography
  • quixotic
  • pogroms
  • microcephalic
  • annealing
  • penumbra
  • flagellum
  • sclera