Six. Has there been six books of the science-fiction universe The Expanse published, already? With the latest iteration, Babylon’s Ashes, James S.A. Corey (the nom de plume of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank) could bring an end to a thrilling but sometimes too ambitious geopolitcal saga.
Six books, then, that James Holden, once a minor character stuck on a cargo ship hauling water ice near the gas giants, became an interstellar celebrity by reporting the destruction of another ship by a mysterious alleged martian warship, provoking a system-wide rebellion that will utltimately become a galactic war.
Since it’s the sixth book, it’s becoming harder to diverge from spoiler territory. Suffice to say this: in the last episode, Nemesis Games, an extremist faction of the Outer Planets Alliance (in opposition to the central planets, Earth and Mars) launched an unprecedented attack that nearly wiped out the human race.
This is how our story begins: the central planets are on their knees, nearly defeated, the treacherous Free Navy is proclaiming the end of the suffering of the Belters – the people living farther than the asteroid belt -, and the crew of James Holden’s ship, the Rocinante, is doing its best to postpone what seems to be inevitable.
After the cataclysmic events of Nemesis Games, it’s only logical that the story is a little bit more « pacifist », for lack of a better world. How can you top killing more than a dozen billion people? You focus on the impact of those attacks, the feelings of the Belters, opressed for centuries and only now realizing that liberty would come at a terrible price. You try to explain the motivations of the « freedom fighters » in the classic, yet entertaining scenario of David against Goliath. But deep down, you try to demonstrate that history is repeating itself. Only the tools change from time to time. And ironically, even if the fights happen now aboard machines flying in the void between planets, the combats, with their torpedo launches, point defense systems and evasion manoeuvers, ressemble more the modern naval engagements than Star Wars. No space lasers. And no dog fights taken from World War 2, one could add.
Maybe here’s why The Expanse had such an impact on the serie’s fan – enough to warrant a TV adaptation of SyFy: it realistic. Oh, sure, there’s some alien technologies, and eventually something coming right ouf of Stargate that leads to more than a thousand other planets, but at its core, it’s more realistic than many other science-fiction universes. It’s geopolitics and space. Or even Game of Thrones in space. Without, of course, dragons. And incest.
So, is Babylon’s Ashes any good? It feels more like the second, calmer part of Nemesis Games than a book on its own. Still, there’s enough story progression to keep the reader on its toes a few times, and for the people following Holden’s adventures since the beginning, the book works as a pleasant ending to a saga that spanned an entire solar system. And even alien planets!
Is it really the end, though? The story concludes on something that could very well be taken as a farewell to the fans. However, so many questions remains unanswered (the aliens are completely left out in the last two books, for example) that many other books could be written in that same universe. It could be time to retire James Holden, and go on with a new central character. Who knows?