It might sound strange when I say I’m very happy to be back in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, since it depicts a terrifying post-apocalyptic world following a zombie plague, but this author’s powerful, intense narrative always manages to draw me in, enthrall me and make me care and worry for her characters, so that every new installment in this saga is a highly anticipated and very welcome occasion.
A little background: some twenty years before the events at the core of this story, the dead started to rise. There is a well-thought out and scientifically-oriented reason for this: two independent studies were underway to find a cure for cancer (using a mutated strain of the Marburg virus) and the common cold. When both organisms were accidentally released, they combined into the Kellis-Amberlee virus, able to amplify its victims, i.e. transforming them into zombies, and since everyone on the planet was infected, even death by natural causes could bring amplification. Once the worst of the Rising is over, humanity finds itself in the grip of terror, forced to undergo blood tests before entering any enclosed space and to go through decontamination every time they are exposed to a live form of the virus, like blood or other bodily fluids. The failure of the traditional media in reporting the facts of the Rising results in the emergence of bloggers as the most trusted form of information, and bloggers are indeed the protagonists of the Newsflesh series.
While the first trilogy (Feed, Deadline and Blackout) focuses on the Masons, a brother-sister team of bloggers, Feedback moves its sights toward a different team, although the story parallels – both in content and in time-frame – the events of the first book in the series, with the bloggers following the last stages of the presidential campaign alongside a candidate’s entourage. This might sound like the rehashing of an old plot, but it’s not, not by a long shot – and I must warn you that while this book can be read on its own, it contains spoilers for the first volume in the original trilogy. Feedback complements the first three novels, and adds new insights and information, not unlike what happens when you observe a scene from different angles: since this is above all a story, or series of stories, about news people and the search for information and truth, no perspective can be deemed as superfluous or repetitive.
Aislinn “Ash” North is an Irwin, which in the post-Rising blogging community means the kind of journalist who goes out in the wild, facing the dangers of the undead to give her audience a sense of what the world outside is about. She’s married to Ben Ross, the Newsie, the team’s writer of more serious, more thoughtful content: it was a marriage of convenience, since it helped Aislinn escape her native Ireland’s oppressive society, but it’s still based on a strong sense of companionship and respect, while their opposing approaches to news content keep the blog fresh and interesting. The other members of the group are Audrey Wen, the Fictional, who writes serialized stories, and Matt Newson, the tech-person who also publishes makeup tutorials. They are a diverse and well-integrated group and while not at the top of the blogging pyramid like the Masons, they enjoy a good audience and hope to expand: this opportunity comes when they are enrolled by Democratic candidate, governor Susan Killburn, to report on her run toward the White House. It will soon become clear that there are darker undercurrents in this presidential campaign and the team will discover, to their horror and loss, that the puppet masters are very powerful and will stop at nothing to bring their plans to completion.
What differentiates Feedback from its predecessors is the outward-directed focus on the post-Rising world: readers of the original trilogy will be already aware of the changes in life style, the need for constant blood tests, the bleach showers to remove any trace of contaminants, and so on. These elements are present here as well, but they take second place to a deeper investigation of the changes the Rising brought to society and people’s mind-sets. Fear is the most powerful drive of the times, and with reason, since the threat of amplification always lurks around the corner, changing the way people must deal with everyday errands, the same ones we face without thinking about it, like entering an underground parking, or a supermarket, or boarding a flight. So there are those who capitalize on that, as Ash notes at some point, with her irrepressible cheeky wit:
Fear wasn’t just an American pastime: it was a global addiction, and industries of every size existed to satiate it. Some of them were obvious, like the blood tests shoved in front of our faces at every possible turn […]
It’s a theme that was present in the previous books but takes center stage here, because that fear is shown as a useful tool – a lesson we need to be reminded of in these times when fear is used far too often in the same way. The fictional future and our present are therefore linked by this element that is also a commentary on the direction our society seems to be headed toward. As usual, Grant never preaches to her audience, but simply lets her characters’ dialogue connect the story to present-day issues, like a snippet of conversation about one of the candidates, a man who prefers to live in a secluded enclave, away from any contact with the rest of the world:
“The pre-Rising generation thinks of him as a visionary.”
“Everyone else thinks of him as a throwback,” said Rick. “He’s too reactionary, he’s too insular, he wants to build a wall across the Canadian and Mexican border. A wall. As if the damn fences in Texas and Arizona didn’t get people killed during the Rising.”
Considering that Feedback was published at the beginning of October 2016, the above quote takes a very special meaning, indeed.
Apart from these considerations, what I most enjoyed in Feedback are the characters: the group of protagonists here feels more approachable than the Masons were in the original trilogy, they appear more… human, for want of a better word. The Newsflesh bloggers are all consummate professionals doing their jobs, granted, but Aislinn & Co. feel more in touch with the world, more interested in people than in the exploration of facts and the search for truth. It’s for this reason, I imagine, that Grant showed us more of the outside world in this novel: besides the cities and the convention centers, that featured in the first three books as well, we see some off-the-map communities on both sides of the spectrum, from the survivalists who want to keep away from the dangers of civilization, to mad Clive’s little domain ruled with intimidation and terror. We also see more interaction between blogger teams, and get a perception of what their community is like, how they view each other, be it with professional respect or envy and antagonism. If I liked the Masons as protagonists, and cared for what happened to them, I grew deeply fond of Ash, Ben, Audrey and Mat – they felt more substantial, more flesh-and blood and less legend, if I’m making any sense. I found the reason for such a difference in a consideration by Aislinn herself:
[…] We’d never considered that letting ourselves be killed might be the answer. It wasn’t worth it. Maybe the Masons would think it was, but the Masons were zealots. They’d been born to the news and if they died making it, they wouldn’t think their lives had been wasted. I didn’t want that. I wanted to live […] and not become a footnote for the sake of a story than had never really been mine and had never been meant to be.
People, and what makes them tick, especially in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, are the reason for the continued success of this series, one that draws its horror from the darkness of the human mind rather than from the hordes of flesh-eating undead, that are just background “decoration” here, rather than the main props. Witnessing the cold-blooded exploitation, from those in power, of citizens’ frantic need for security is far more chilling than seeing senseless murders gleefully perpetrated with a barbed-wire-clad bat (yes, TWD, I’m looking right at you!) and it’s far more effective than any given quantity of blood and gore.
As long as Mira Grant (the alter ego for UF writer Seanan McGuire) will keep delivering these meaningful stories of the post-Rising world, I will be looking forward to learning more.
If short stories can sometimes be a difficult medium, because the compressed space they must be worked in often leaves the reader unsatisfied with the way characters and narrative are developed, this collection of very short works from John Scalzi enjoys a different track record: the humorous nature of these stories lends itself quite easily to brevity and they feel more like well-developed jokes than anything else, or like some of the witty posts with which the author delights his blog’s readers.
So here you will find, for example, a mock interview with a very peeved Pluto, whose demotion from the status of planet still burns deeply, despite the abysmal cold in the fringes of our Solar System: the annoyed ex-planet takes this opportunity to vent some of its displeasure toward some old and new adversaries, the scientific community at large and – quite inexplicably – Phil Collins. Just to give you an idea of the tone of these stories, here is a quote directly from the ex-planet:
[…] people start calling me and telling me I’m the newest planet. And I remember saying, I don’t know if I want that responsibility. And they said, well, you can’t not be a planet now, Walt Disney’s already named a character after you. That’s really what made a planet. Not the astronomers, but that cartoon dog.
Or we can read the advertisement for a very special travel agency that can send its customers into alternate universes, offering various possible scenarios about a certain event: the example used is the death of Adolf Hitler, and despite the far-from-palatable subject, Mr. Scalzi manages to make you laugh out loud with his vision of alternate futures. My favorite is the one where the time-frame alteration keeps sending the city of Vienna back and back into the past, transforming it into a battleground for competing armies, until
[…] when the time traveling pro-Magyar forces show up, they are slaughtered by everyone else which is tired of all this time-traveling crap, thereby ending the causality loop.
Or again we are treated to a collection of hilariously crazy tweets the author posted to ease his boredom during a long flight, imagining the assault on the plane’s wing operated by a gremlin bent on plunging the vehicle down to earth. If you don’t think this could be funny (especially in the case of people who are not comfortable with flight), reading this brief piece will make you change your mind.
Each story is prefaced by a few words about its inception and history, and all of them are accompanied by little drawings that complement the story to perfection. If you want to spend a couple of light-hearted hours in the company of a favorite author, or if you want to discover John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor, this is the perfect place to start.
Tackling the second book in a series can be a tricky business when the first one happened to be an amazing read: I’m often afraid that the “magic” will not be there with the same strength as it was in that first, remarkable read, so that I tend to postpone my approach to the next volume. Well, I should not have done that with Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim, because this second book is even better than the first – and consider that Dreamer’s Pool was already an incredible find.
Tower of Thorns starts some time after the events of Dreamer’s Pool, showing how wise woman Blackthorn and her companion Grim seem to be quite settled in their life at Winterfalls: despite Blackthorn’s prickly character and Grim’s broody silence, the two have integrated well into their life in Prince Oran’s household, finding a modicum of peace, although the ghosts of their respective pasts still haunt them. This quite fragile equilibrium is unbalanced by the move of the Prince’s retinue to the king’s palace, due to a temporary absence of the sovereign: leaving what the two have come to think of as their safe place is not easy, but the advanced pregnancy of Lady Flidais, the Prince’s wife, compels Blackthorn to insure her presence – and it’s clear that, despite her grumblings, the healer has developed a strong attachment to the community she lives in, while Grim has gone even beyond that.
Neither of them has much time to adapt to their new surroundings when two things happen that upset once more the status quo: Lady Geileis, the ruler of a nearby land, comes asking for help against a creature that has taken residence in an abandoned tower, its day-long wails upsetting both the people’s spirits and the health of crops and cattle; and Flannan, an old friend of Blackthorn and a wandering scholar, makes his appearance, stirring up old ghosts and the healer’s never mastered need for vengeance. Blackthorn’s acceptance of Lady Geileis appeal for help – the monster’s curse might be lifted by a wise woman – is simply the means to leave the court and explore the possibility of following Flannan south and connecting with a net of rebels bent on exposing Mathuin’s wrongdoings and finally bringing him to justice.
This story is told in what I have come to envision as expanding concentric circles, each new one adding some more information to the plot, and this is particularly true with the mystery of Geileis and her wailing monster, imprisoned in a tower protected by an impenetrable barrier of thorns. The flashbacks to what appears to be a classic fairy story offer more and more information about the terrible curse weighing on Geileis’ land, and her own part in it: it’s a fascinating tale, one that provides some much-needed clues to what basically is a very mysterious character, one who appears from the start to have an hidden agenda, and the will to bring her plans to fruition, no matter the cost. As I learned the details of her past, I was caught between pity and dislike: on one side Geileis is a tragic figure, considering the heavy curse hanging over her domain, with a tower-bound monster howling all day long throughout the summer, its cries dredging the saddest thoughts from the listeners’ minds and sometimes bringing them to extreme acts, even affecting the cattle and the crops. On the other, there is a core of ruthlessness in her that renders her uncaring of any consequences might be visited on those who choose to help her: the glimpses we see of the younger Geileis made me think that probably she never grew out of her teenage selfishness, so that her plight did not touch me as deeply as it should probably have.
Despite being at the core of the inciting incident for this story, Geileis is far less central to its economy than Blackthorn and Grim, especially the latter who – in my opinion – often takes the center stage here, while part of his past his revealed. Blackthorn is a woman caught between two powerful forces: the need to see justice done for the wrongs Mathuin visited on her and other helpless victims, and the equally strong need to keep true to her pact with the fae Conmael. The arrival of Flannan makes the latter’s pull less strong, and day by day her need to throw caution to the four winds becomes more compelling, tempered only by the curiosity toward the riddle she wants to solve and – even more important – her loyalty toward Grim. The relationship between Blackthorn and Grim keeps being the beating heart of this series, and here, where it’s sorely tested, it shines even more brightly: should she decide to follow Flannan south, toward vengeance, she knows she has to deceive Grim in order to keep him from following her toward what Blackthorn believes will be a sure death, and this causes her great anguish because complete honesty lies at the root of their relationship, one forged not on romantic attachment but on the kind of trust that only family can engender.
For his part, Grim perceives the distance that has come between himself and Blackthorn and while he can only guess at its reasons – and is hurt by it – he refuses to forsake the role of protector, confidant and friend that he needs to exercise just as much as Blackthorn knows she needs it herself. To say that my heart went out to him in these circumstances would be a massive understatement, especially when observing other people’s dismissive reaction to his silences and his oh-so-deceptive simple-mindedness, that under its surface hides a keen mind and a deep capacity for selflessness. Whatever compassion I might have felt toward Grim’s character, however, went several steps further once the massive disclosure about his past came to the fore: it’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation that completely upends any theory I had about his background and shines a very different light on his personality, and his soul. Tower of Thorns is very much Grim’s story more than anyone else’s, and the pages where we learn about the events that destroyed his past and shaped him into the man he is are among the very best of the novel, the intensity of feelings described with a sort of lucid compassion that is nothing short of breath-taking.
In Tower of Thorns both Blackthorn and Grim appear to have mastered some of the ghosts from their past, or at very least to have come to more comfortable terms with them, and even though it’s clear they still have a long road before them, it’s also clear they know – with the absolute certainty they had not reached until now – they can totally depend on one another, that despite their flaws they can count on each other for support, and strength.
There’s an intensity of feeling in Blackthorn and Grim’s relationship that touched my heart in such a deep way I have not experienced in a long time: to me this is the mark of stellar writing. With the first book I discovered an amazing author, but with this second I have become a staunch fan.
If someone had told me that I would not be able to finish a book by Alastair Reynolds, I would never have believed them: he’s one of my favorite SF authors, and I’ve always enjoyed what I read so far, so when I learned of this new novel I dived straight for it, only to be profoundly disappointed.
The story focuses on two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, and is told from Arafura’s point of view: they leave their home on Mazarile to join a crew of glorified scavengers searching through the relics of old civilizations for valuable objects. There are many interesting details to this view of the universe: humanity has spread away from Earth (there are several mentions of the Old Sun and its failure) and created artificial homes on planets and habitats; the remnants of previous civilizations are to be found enclosed in baubles, that open at pre-arranged times to allow the treasure hunters to look for artifacts; there is a form of instantaneous communication/listening device that uses a sort of huge (alien?) skull to establish contact, or to eavesdrop, but only if the operators are young people, with a still-developing brain; and there are pirates, preying on the scavenger crews to get at the artifacts without doing the hard work.
Most of the above is often mentioned in passing, but never satisfactorily explored, especially on the subject of the baubles and how they came to be: I’m not in favor of massive info-dumps, on the contrary, but it seems… wasteful to give the readers a glimpse of something so intriguing, and never to offer enough information to make sense of it all. I believe the roots of the problem lie with Arafura’s point of view, and for a variety of reasons: for starters, she knows little of the universe she lives in, and that makes sense up to a point, because of her secluded life on Mazarile. Yet, once she escapes the stifling confines of her life, she shows little interest in the “big picture” out there, accepting with irritating passivity the information provided by her crew-mates, without looking further than that: there is nothing of the hungry curiosity I would have expected from a teenager who is for the first time free of the constraints of her former existence, none of the wonder of being “out there” and living an adventure. If I were to distill the sisters’ reactions to the new and intriguing vistas opening before them, I could do it with: “oh, um… yeah, ok”.
Even worse is the “voice” of the two young girls: their dialogue and inner thoughts sound… dumbed down, for want of a better word. If this is meant to be Alastair Reynolds’ attempt at expanding into YA fiction, I find it more than inadequate: used as I am to his neat, incisive prose, what I found in Revenger was a writing style so careless that I often wondered if I was truly reading such a well-known author. And if Arafura’s very simplified expressive range is the means to reach out to the younger audiences this seems to be intended to, I find it somewhat insulting, because readers in this age target are much more articulate than that.
Another problem I encountered with this book was the inciting incident for the whole story: the decision of the two girls to leave their planet comes out of the blue, after a visit to a sort of carnival booth in which some lady happens to have a device that measures the ability to read bones, a very sought-after skill for a treasure-hunting crew. Forgetting for a moment the presence of such a device outside of a lab, or the fact it’s in the hands of a charlatan, the ease with which the two – and Arafura in particular, since she seems the less flighty of the pair – choose to abandon their home and their father sounds contrived and far too convenient, just like their immediate recruitment by Captain Rackamore of the ship Monetta’s Mourn. In what looks like a matter of hours, the sisters are out in space, ready for a remunerative job that might help the family’s flagging finances, without a single apparent qualm about what and who they leave behind, or what kind of dangers they might face on the scavenger ship. Moreover I want to reserve a special mention to a scene in which the carnival lady’s helper wrecks the girl’s guardian robot Paladin to keep it from interfering with the examination: it looks ludicrous, absurd, excessive and totally out of context with the rest of the story. If it was meant as comic relief, I’m afraid it failed completely.
Faced with these difficulties, I would not have hesitated to abandon this book much earlier, had it been written by a less-respected author, so I struggled on, ignoring my own law about never reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure: still, the story remained un-engaging and after a while even the attempts at inserting peculiar words to show the changes in everyday language (“lungstuff” for air or oxygen; “lamps” for eyes; “coves” for persons, and so forth) became an irritant rather than background information. When tragedy hit the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, with the assault by the pirate ship led by Bosa Sennen, I hoped that something would change, that I would see some strong reaction from Arafura, but once again my hopes were dashed: the girl’s lack of substantial emotional responses strengthened my impression of a cardboard character with no depth at all, one I could not be invested in. Having lost what little interest I had gathered for the story up to that point, I gave up the struggle a little before the halfway mark.
What most troubled me with Revenger was that the potential for the story was there, but it remained untapped and was instead buried under uninspired writing and poor characterization. Not at all what I’m used to from a Reynolds book.
Season 2 of the SyFy show inspired by the amazing space opera series by James S.A. Corey is about to begin, and as I was looking for some news and trailers (by the way, the few snippets we were afforded about Martian marine Bobbie Draper are more than promising…) I found this quite funny Season 1 recap – or rather, re-cat, since it’s all done with cats in the roles of the main characters.
It’s too delightful not to be shared 🙂
If you have not seen Season 1 of The Expanse, or read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the video will be full of spoilers: watch at your own risk!
I received the e-ARC of this book from Pan McMillan through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
When a fellow blogger mentioned that NetGalley had this title available for request I applied immediately: how could I not, since I’m a huge Scalzi fan? Not that I had many hopes of seeing my request accepted, since I’m well aware that my blog is a small one, with a low posting rate, but I had to try anyway. So you can imagine my delighted surprise when I received the confirmation email: the wait for the official release of the book would not have been long, granted, but the possibility of reading this new story right there and then was very exciting. To say the least…
The premise of The Collapsing Empire is that the impossibility of attaining faster-than-light travel has been bypassed by the discovery of the Flow, a sort of inter-dimensional set of “corridors” able to bring ships toward other worlds, not unlike a set of currents in an ocean. Moving away from mother Earth, humanity has established a huge interstellar empire, the Interdependency, spreading among the stars in search of habitable worlds. Not finding any, with the exception of End – aptly named because it’s the terminus of the Flow – the Interdependency chose to build stations and artificial habitats where civilization flourished in a tightly connected web of mutual support.
Until the time when the story begins, the Flow has been believed to be set and immutable – that is, with the exception of the tragedy of Dalasysla, whose inhabitants were cut off from the Interdependency by what was termed a once-only destabilization of the Flow. People can choose selective blindness when it suits them, however, and for centuries they have blithely ignored the simple fact that something named ‘Flow’ is all but static, and the Flow is indeed destabilizing, or probably changing the direction of its currents, so that the human colonies that it connected until this moment are now threatened with permanent isolation, and probably extinction.
In times of such massive changes or upheavals that menace the fabric of society, there are those who prefer to turn a blind eye to it all, those who try to profit from the turmoil, and those who attempt to salvage the salvageable: these different positions constitute the core of the novel and should be discovered by reading it, so I will not reveal anything else about the plot, focusing rather on the central characters.
For those readers who enjoy the presence of solid female characters, The Collapsing Empire does not disappoint, on the contrary the most prominent figures in the story are mostly women, starting with Cardenia Wu-Patrick, the newly elected emperox of the Interdependency. Elected by default, it must be said, because she’s the sort-of-illegitimate daughter of the previous emperox and she entered in the line of succession due to an unfortunate accident in which the rightful heir was involved. Finding the unexpected weight of the Interdependency on her shoulders, she tries to adapt to her new role, and it’s through the trial-and-error of her first few days, marred by some very harrowing circumstances, that her strength of character and quiet determination come to the fore – nicely balanced by a touch of humor and self-deprecating irony. I believe that the story so far just showed the tip of the iceberg with Cardenia, and that this is one character who has many interesting developments in store for the readers along the way.
There is no story without an evil counterpart, and no one is more fit for this role than House Nohamapetan – one of the many trading Houses of the Interdependency – and its de-facto ruler lady Nadashe. She is above all a skilled manipulator, an intelligent, ambitious woman who knows what she wants and how to get it: by contrast, her two brothers – equally scheming and ambitious – appear as no more than putty in her competent hands, and it’s no surprise that she is the one pulling all the strings. Even those leading to murder…
The most conspicuous, striking – and ultimately amusing – character remains however that of Kiva Lagos, representative of the Lagos trading House and my absolute winner in case of a contest among the novel’s figures: she is brash, outspoken and uncaring of any behavioral or diplomatic convention, and she peppers her speeches with an amount of profanity that would give the Expanse‘s Avarasala a run for her money – although, unlike the more eloquent Avarasala, her four-letter vocabulary is exclusively limited to the f* word in all its declinations… Needless to say, I loved Kiva since she first appeared on the scene: only a skilled writer like John Scalzi could deftly manage such a foul-mouthed character, and the endless stream of expletives hovering like a cloud around her, and at the same time turn Kiva Lagos into a reader’s number one choice for… well, heroine. And I have not even mentioned her equally formidable mother!
As far as the narrative itself is concerned, the tone and mood are what I’ve come to expect, and enjoy, from a Scalzi novel: serious business interspersed with humorous commentaries on situations and the vagaries of the human mind, and an intriguing core concept that promises to develop into fascinating directions. One detail I’d like to mention in particular is the homage paid toward Iain Banks’ Culture series (or so I like to believe) in the names of the ships listed in the story: names like Yes Sir, That’s My Baby; Some Nerve!; If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out. It was both amusing and charming, and I appreciated it greatly.
My only complaint (if I can call it that) is that The Collapsing Empire is mostly dedicated to building the framework for this new series, and as such it’s focused on laying the foundation for the future developments, ending when separate events start coalescing into an intriguing whole: the novel does not close with a cliffhanger, not as such, but the promise of things to come is not enough – I want more, and I want it right now. Which means I’m happily on board to see how this will all pan out.
This is the book I was most looking forward to this year, and I’m very happy to showcase it as my last review for 2016: The Expanse is without doubt one of the best space opera series currently running, its pacing and storyline a constant progression that shows no slumps or uncertainties, so that I feel I’m closing this blogging year with a proverbial bang.
Speaking of which, I was aware that the momentous events of the previous book, Nemesis Games, might have created some expectations of a more… active story, but this is a very different one, a transition story rather than one purely based on action. The devastation visited on Earth has not only created countless deaths and massive environmental upheavals, but also huge shifts in politics, alliances and perspective: what happened on the home planet is not affecting only its inhabitants, but the whole Solar System. From the need to relocate the staggering number of refugees, to the loss of irreplaceable materials that only Earth could provide to its outlying colonies, the actions of the Free Navy, far from freeing the Belters from their subordination to the inner planets, had a negative influence on all of humanity and its future.
This must be the main reason that compelled the authors to shift from the tighter focus on the Rocinante’s crew to a wider cast of characters: much as it happened with the second book in the series, Caliban’s War, the overall scope has now become too big to be observed solely through the eyes of Holden & Co., it needs other points of view, different tiles in the mosaic, so to speak. Therefore, events also unfold from the standpoint of well-known figures like Avasarala or Bobbie Draper, combined with those of returning characters like Michio Pa, Clarissa Mao or scientist Prax, and the addition of newer ones like Anderson Dawes, Marco Inaros and young Filip.
This choice felt quite appropriate to me, because instead of subtracting precious “screen time” from the Rocinante Four, it put their actions and choices into a wider perspective, and ultimately enhanced them: when it was only (so to speak…) a matter of chasing the trail of the protomolecule, it was good and right to follow the story from the angle of a handful of characters, but now that the trouble has expanded system-wide and could extend to the newly-founded colonies beyond the alien gate, the story needs to broaden its horizons. What started as the tale of four people thrown together by dramatic occurrences and slowly coalescing into a family, has now become the saga of humanity, its reach into space and the choices that need to be made to keep this larger family alive and thriving – because, to quote from the book, “ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all”.
The core theme of Babylon’s Ashes is indeed this, the need to understand that the differences that have divided humanity – political, religious, racial, whatever – are nothing but distractions on the road toward the stars: if the threat of the protomolecule was not enough to drive this message home, the damage inflicted on Earth could (and should) be the means to overcome those differences. Despite the dramatic events unfolding before our eyes, the still ongoing strife and battles, the political and military posturing, there is a subtle thread of hope woven throughout the narrative, the evidence that humanity holds the potential for building a better family out there, one that can look beyond our divisions, recognizing them for the red herrings they are, and come together in times on need.
These changes are mirrored in the characters as well, both the old ones and the new. Holden is not the idealistic do-gooder he was at the start of the story, nor does he make his decisions on impulse anymore: he has learned how to include some political expediency in his planning – probably due to the influence of Fred Johnson, and certainly having had to live far too often with the consequences of his rashest actions. More than that, what happened in the course of Nemesis Games brought home far more clearly than in the past that everything and everyone he holds dear is far too fragile to be risked without thinking about the short- and long-term effects of his choices: not that he never considered this in the past, but recent events showed him how clear and present is the danger of losing the people that have become his family. Naomi still labors under the burden of guilt that resurfaced with a part of her past, and of the hard decisions she had to make then and in more recent times: she is not on stage as much as she was in the previous book, but here you can see she is still evolving, and that the process is both painful and enlightening – she is still growing as a person, and acquiring more depth and substance. And Avasarala…. Well, it’s no mystery I greatly enjoy her as a character, and here we see even more facets of her formidable personality, her powerful determination even in the face of harrowing personal loss: strangely enough, the brief moments in which her granite façade crumbles are the ones where her strength comes across more clearly, showing that nothing can dent Avasarala’s resolve in a permanent way. Or exhaust her bottomless well of profanities…
This novel is not just about the “good guys”, though, and I’d like to spend some time with the story’s main villain, Marco Inaros, self-styled commander of the Free Navy and liberator of the Belters, the man responsible for the apocalyptic attack on Earth. At first he looked to me as the proverbial mustache-twirling baddie, and I was saddened at the apparent waste of potential he represented, but I should have trusted these authors more, since they never disappointed me in the past – and neither did they now. After a while I understood that Inaros represents a case in point for what happens with revolutions born out of profound injustice and moving forward on a wave of unthinking violence: in those cases it’s far too easy to lose sight of the original motivations for the rebellion, and lash out blindly with little or no thought about long-range consequences or collateral damage. Marco Inaros is the kind of man who emerges in such circumstance, one who can give voice to festering hostility held in check for too long: a man who can make himself known for blatant acts, or “grand gestures” as they are defined at some point, but far too focused on himself rather than the people he pretends to be helping. He’s not inherently evil, but more simply, and more tragically, in love with his own image, and unable to see – or foresee – his mistakes.
The best picture of the man comes from his son Filip, when he considers that “..he had two fathers now. The one who led the fight against the inners and who Filip loved like plants love light, and the one who twisted out of everything that went wrong and blamed anyone but himself”. And in that consideration there is definitive judgment as well: Inaros is ultimately a figure of tragedy, not in the sense that he should be pitied, but rather one whose blindness and self-absorption are the cause of widespread heartbreak.
Young Filip is also one character who, though still in continuing development, promises to be an intriguing one, should he return in the next installments: all throughout his journey in search of recognition, of the parental love he needs and is denied for a series of reasons as complex as he is, he goes through several stages that are often quite difficult to witness. He was the object of my compassion, because I could feel the pain underlying his brash attitude and the cloak of hate he wore as a coat of armor: there is hope, though, in the identity choice he makes at the end of his last p.o.v. chapter – a choice that might signal an important course change, one I hope to see as the story progresses.
There is much to look forward to for the next three books of The Expanse: there is still a sample of the protomolecule at large, for example, and the former Martian Navy’s ships that passed through the Laconia gate constitute an unforeseeable danger for the future. And who knows what other troubles the authors will decide to visit on this not-so-distant future version of our system. This series has been steadily growing and branching off in new and compelling directions, and I for one cannot wait to see what the next books will bring.