Orbit, 2016, 538 pages
A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.
The Free Navy - a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships - has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.
James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.
But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny, and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.
I enjoy the Expanse series. This is the sixth book and it hasn't gotten stale yet. And in each volume, the authors who write under the pen name James S.A. Corey increase the stakes for humanity a little more.
That said, this book didn't rate 5 stars, and still falls short of my favorite in the series, because it felt very much like the sixth book in a series - all the characters we've known for the past five books are back, going through their paces, being confronted with new challenges, and yet another existential threat to humanity, and yet, by the end, it really didn't feel like much had changed at all.
All right, actually things do change quite a lot politically in this book. Babylon's Ashes opens with the war between the inner and outer systems turning hot. The Belters, long feeling oppressed and neglected by Earth and Mars, and fearing what will happen if mankind is allowed to flee through the newly discovered ring gates to other star systems and leave them behind, have formed a navy. Just as every revolutionary organization in history fragments and creates a more violent and more radical offshoot, so the Outer Planets Alliance gives birth to the Free Navy, run by Naomi Nagata's sociopathic ex-lover and father of her son. The Free Navy is doing its best to bomb Earth and Mars back to the Stone Age, and humanity's homeworld is in ruins.
It ends up falling to James Holden, of course, to save the day and bring everyone together in a solar system-wide kumbaya.
Well, not really. But Holden is still his noble self, even as he angsts about losing his idealism. Babylon's Ashes is part war story, part Firefly-esque caper, with an emphasis on the familiar relationships (blood and otherwise) that bind the main characters together. With pretty much everyone making a return appearance, there isn't a lot of development for any of them except the villains. Everyone from foul-mouthed UN diplomat and now ruler of a broken Earth, Avisarala, to Holden and his crew to Fred Johnson, the "Butcher of Anderson Station" and OPA leader, gets worn down in this book, some more than others.
While this volume delivered once again, here's why I'm getting antsy for some REALLY BIG SHIT to happen - it takes place entirely within Earth's solar system, even while we know humans are spreading out to hundreds of alien worlds. And the aliens who built the ring gate, and sent the protomolecule to Earth, millennia ago, which started all this trouble in the first place back in the first book, Leviathan Wakes - we've been waiting for them to show up. Or for their artifacts to show up. Or for... something to show up. Because the authors have certainly been hinting at the idea that sooner or later, humanity is going to meet, in some fashion, the aliens who are responsible for all this. If they just up and died a few million years ago, what caused that? Interstellar civilizations don't disappear without a reason.
So, while the scope of the Expanse series has expanded from intrigue on asteroid stations to war between the planets to interstellar colonization, we really haven't seen much of those other star systems or what might be getting stirred up out there. And as big as the stakes were in this book, it still seems like for the past few books, we've been waiting for a really big shoe to drop. I am sure each new volume will continue to be about the Rocinante adventuring in its ever-expanding universe, but show a little more of that universe.
Critical tone aside, I'm not getting tired of the Expanse series yet and I think it still has plenty of volumes left. And unlike certain other authors whose big epic book series get made into TV series, the Expanse authors seem to be able to keep ahead of the film schedule.
Also by James S.A. Corey: My reviews of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games.
My complete list of book reviews.