Nemesis Games by James S A Corey
There was a lot to like about the fifth book in The Expanse, but ultimately it repeated the structural flaws of the previous book pretty much exactly. It is saved by strong characterisation and a breezy writing style, as many of these later books in the series have been. As I have felt previously with this series, I liked it enough to keep going but not enough that I’m massively enthused about it.
Nemesis Games picks up not long after the Ilus incident, with Holden and the crew of the Rocinante unwinding on Tycho Station. Personal issues pull the crew of the Rocinante apart, with this book rather excitingly following all four crew members of the Rocinante, allowing us to get in their minds (apart from James Holden), for the first time. Alex Kamal returns to Mars to try to patch things up with his ex-wife, but finds himself dragged into a conspiracy involving missing Martian warships. Amos Burton heads back down to Earth following the death of a woman close to him in his previous life as a Baltimore gangster (see short story The Churn for details) to either pay his respects or set out a bloody swath of revenge if her death is unnatural. Naomi Nagata is summoned by an old OPA connection back to Ceres Station, pulled by a deeply personal connection as her mysterious past is finally unveiled. Finally, a bored and lonely Holden on Tycho is asked to investigate colony ships which appear to be vanishing at the gates to the other worlds.
It is a proper treat to finally follow these core figures of Alex, Amos and Naomi as full point of view characters, which means that this book is not too worried about throwing lots of new characters our way; we already know them pretty well from the previous four books. Digging inside their heads is interesting, particularly in the case of Naomi who has held the most back so far. Cibola Burn has a major issue where the first half was very slow but the book was saved by a major event at the half way point; unfortunately, Nemesis Games has pretty much the exact same problem. There are pages upon pages in the first half which are almost immediately rendered pointless by a game changing moment in the second half. I don’t mind slow build characterisation stuff, but we don’t really gain anything from these scenes. For example, Amos’ storyline in the first half is essentially a mini-sequel to The Churn with very little to do with the rest of the book, which feels a little self-indulgent. When things get going they really get going and there are lots of moments towards the end which are breathlessly exciting.
The book suffers slightly for the lack of development of the protomolecule/ancient alien civilisation storyline, focusing almost entirely in the politics of the Sol system and the delicate power balance between Earth, Mars and the OPA. It’s not that this stuff is bad necessarily, but the balance between the two seems to be fairly key to this series. The first two books, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War struck this balance best and they are the two strongest books in the series. There are some hugely exciting action scenes and some which are a bit incoherent as has long been both the boon and curse of this series.
Naomi probably had the strongest storyline as we see a very different side to the Rocinante’s XO than anything we’ve seen before. Bobbie Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala play slightly bigger roles in this book, which is nice as they really were two of the best protagonists that this series has had. With the exception of Holden, we’ve yet to have a single repeat PoV between books, but I can’t help but hope that these two come back in a big way. Holden is a bit static in this book, largely reacting to everything else going on, which is a bit of a change of pace from his usually position at the centre of every major event in the system.
Nemesis Games is definitely enjoyable, Abraham and Franck are too talented as writers for it to be anything but, however it has not quite succeeded in pulling this series out of the slight rut it has found itself in. The next book, Babylon’s Ashes, is actually coming out pretty soon. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it and I hope I love it.