With factions breaking into fractions, the established systems of governance dissolving as the infrastructure crumbles and hope attenuates into the vacuum, scrabbling in the dirt of what remains scattered across the solar system comes Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book of The Expanse sequence by James S A Corey, the narrative now entirely removed from the interstellar protomolecule and instead dealing with the secondary consequences of its discovery and the horrendous wounds it opened in humanity.
Before there was a sense that if the worst came to the worst it might come down to every man for himself; in the wake of the bombardment of Earth by the group that now calls itself the Free Navy that sense is gone. In their stolen Martian warships they lurk in the dark and demand ransom from any ship which passes through their territory on the way to the Gate, and that terrible time has arrived.
Of everything Jim Holden has been through, has anything ever been as fearsome as diplomacy as he tries to help mediate the allocation of insufficient resources? Despite his long history of working fairly to achieve the best outcome for all parties regardless of the flag they fly, there are those in the Belt who reject him simply because he was raised on Earth, a fact he had no control over and a world he left long ago.
Captain of the Rocinante, Holden is a sensitive leader, aware of the feelings of Naomi Nagata as they engage a Belter vessel – as ever she is more pragmatic – and telling Clarissa Mao that it is his duty to ensure her safety as long as she is aboard his ship even though they first met when she was on a quest to kill him and destroy his reputation by blaming him for the death of hundreds of innocents which she would engineer.
Background characters step forward such as Captain Michio Pa of the Connaught, up to her neck in the grand plans of Marco Inaros, responsible for the deaths of billions who now plans to rob the husk of the dying Earth to feed his own chosen people. A psychotic and a sore loser who does not forgive, anyone who is not entirely devoted to his cause an enemy and anyone who can be more use as a burden on the opposition’s resources disposable, Pa knows her doubts about Inaros will place her and her family in danger.
The thorn in the side of both inner and outer world alliances is the tempestuous teenager Filip Inaros. Brainwashed by his megalomaniac father in the absence of his mother Naomi Nagata who faked her own death to escape him, Filip is devout in his convictions and angrier than ever; could he conceivably be more dangerous than he was before, the manchild who has already decimated a planet?
While Inaros is one of those trying to tear everything down so he can be king of the rubble there are some desperately trying to hold things together, to minimise losses on all sides with little thought given to their nominal allegiance, but inevitably there are compromises: “It’s the best bad plan I’ve got,” Captain Pa tells one of her husbands.
Similarly, the most powerful woman now off Earth who pays her debts with surprising acts of kindness which could only be mediated by someone in her position, Chrisjen Avasarala is as incisive and acerbic as ever in her cutting assessments of those around her, her own aides and her counterparts in the other governments such as the besieged Martian leader: “He puts a brave face on it, but he’s not a prime minister. He’s hospice nurse for a republic. Anytime I start feeling like my job’s bad, I just have a drink with him.”
With the story told through the eyes of nineteen separate characters, though some of the less interesting among them have only a single chapter, Babylon’s Ashes lacks the focus and momentum of the earlier novels and it is not unified by a single grand event or challenge, almost as though the last loose ends of the upheaval of the solar system were being wrapped up before humanity arrives at the crossroads which will lead it to the next stage of the sequence beyond the ring gates.