Friday, September 22, 2017

Microreview [book]: Babylon's Ashes (book six of The Expanse), by James S.A. Corey

 A rather anticlimactic conclusion to the Holden/Nagata vs. Inaros saga, with too much Holden and Inaros and not enough Nagata!

Corey, James S.A. Babylon's Ashes. Orbit: 2016.
Buy it here if you wish. 

When The Dark Knight Rises (clumsily!) began building up the villain’s mystique of Bane, we knew two things right away: Batman would fight him twice, and the first time he would be utterly defeated. It is this initial defeat which increases the melodramatic payoff of his eventual victory: we know how tough the enemy is, because we’ve seen it first-hand.
Bane = a worthy adversary; Inaros = an annoying fop
A similar narrative convention is at work in books five (Nemesis Games) and six (Babylon’s Ashes) of The Expanse. Marco Inaros is the Bane of the solar system: he (to hear him retell it) single-handedly rocked (see what I did there?) the inner planets’ equilibrium, nearly destroying Earth. This corresponds to Bane’s initial victory over Batman; so far, so good. But all of this build-up is to increase the melodrama when Batman (or in this case the dynamic duo of Naomi Nagata and Jim Holden) eventually triumphs against this formidable foe. And this is where, in my opinion, Babylon’s Ashes missteps.

It turns out Inaros just isn’t that compelling a villain, and perhaps as a consequence of this, the good guys’ inevitable victory over him isn’t particularly cathartic. In one sense that shouldn’t matter, since of course it’s entirely up to Daniel Abraham and Ty Francks what sort of villain to create, and nothing mandates a “tougher than you can believe” archetype. The problem, as I see it, is that they fell into this narrative trope without having the right sort of villain for it. Inaros is simply a megalomaniac with a flair (sort of) for PR, but his ridiculous behavior and blunders end up alienating many of his erstwhile supporters. This leeches the catharsis right out of the mano y mano confrontation at the end, since in a manner of speaking Inaros has already been beaten, in small ways, numerous times before this.

If the big, bad wolf who wrecked the solar system is nothing more than a navel-gazing fool, it cheapens the hard work the crew of the Roci (et al) have to do to bring him to heel. Indeed, we are left with a somewhat less favorable impression of the super-crew, since defeating a moron like Inaros apparently taxed them to the limit of their abilities! Surely there was something less explosive they could have done to knock out all those rail guns in the ‘slow zone’? I mean, was that really the best plan they could come up with, these brightest minds in the solar system?

Despite Marco Inaros being a nincompoop, the writers chose to focus a bit too much on him and in particular, his thirst for vengeance against Holden, the man who kept humiliating him. Fair enough, to be obsessed with a pissing contest seems in character for the petty Inaros, but why did the writers let him and his quest to destroy Jim Holden dominate the story? A much more compelling storyline, it seems to me, would have been in a more explicit opposition between the methods and worldviews of Nagata and Inaros, since one way of thinking of this book is as a battle for the soul of Filip, their son. Besides, Nagata is a much more interesting character than Holden (of whose earnestness, if we’re all being honest, we’re getting a bit tired, aren’t we?).

Nothing against Alex and Amos, but in general, the male characters of this series just aren’t as compelling as the female ones: the Naomis, Bobbies, Michios, and Clarissas (to say nothing of the indefatigable Avasarala herself!). One humble suggestion for future installments in this probably interminable series: stick with the ladies! (I’m happy to say that their latest novella does precisely this, telling the story of an interesting tweenaged girl growing up on Laconia—stay tuned for my review!)

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for having such great female characters (but see ‘penalties’ below)

Penalties: -1 for the narrative mismatch between the fop Inaros and his Bane-like mystique, -1 for focusing too much on the boring male characters and too little on the ladies of the system!

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 “Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore”

[Does a mere 6/10 seem low to you? Check out our scoring system here, and learn why it’s actually not bad!]

Zhaoyun, who to be honest is more a fan of ‘spacemance’ than of space opera per se, has been inhabiting The Expanse since it burst onto the scene, and has been a regular(ish) contributor at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.