Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first four books in The Expanse series. If you are a novice to The Expanse experience – and wish to remain so – you may not want to continue reading.
The Expanse is a massive science fiction series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name of James S. A. Corey), of which Nemesis Games is the fifth out of a planned nine installments. (It is also the basis of an upcoming television series on the SyFy network, but other than to stifle a fan girl squee, I will make no more comment on that.)
In the previous books (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn), set hundreds of years in the future, we see how humankind has spread throughout the Solar system. Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets (including “the Belt” – the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) each now have their own political system alongside the United Nations, which attempts to straddle all the burgeoning nationalities. Then there is the effect of the “protomolecule”: an alien virus, millions of years old, the purpose of which was to manipulate Earth’s primordial life. Thankfully the virus never reached its intended target, instead floating in space, inert and non-directional, until millennia later it came into contact with a manned spaceship. This interaction dramatically (and rapidly) changed the course of human progress. Soon after its initial impact, the unfathomable progeny of the alien virus opened up a portal to another galaxy – its point of origin, which appears to have gone through some type of self-inflicted holocaust leaving behind thousands of habitable planets empty and ripe for colonization by opportunistic humans, especially those hoping to escape the confines of the political conflicts that are simmering in the Solar system.
So where does an author (or authors) go when the stories recounted in the first four books of a massive series keep getting bigger and bigger with each successive novel, expanding in breadth and depth encompassing two galaxies while trying to stay focused on a handful of recurring characters? Why, they turn their focus inward, away from “merely” the politics and the vastness and mystery of space, away from the “expansiveness” of the story, and they make it intensely personal again.
That’s not to say that the story gets smaller. The impact of actions taken, the political ramifications, the human fallout, is huge. Mind-boggling. But unlike the other books in the series, where the action is seen through the eyes of not only the crew of the lithe starship Rocinante, but also through characters (both principled and lawless) who may or may not appear in later volumes, Nemesis Games (except for the Prologue chapter) is seen solely through the eyes of captain James Holden and his crew: Naomi Nagata (systems engineer and Holden’s lover), Alex Kamal (pilot) and Amos Burton (mechanic). And for each of them, the actions of Nemesis Games is indeed incredible personal.
The book starts out with a relative lull in the action of the previous books; the Rocinante is in dry dock undergoing extensive repairs which leaves the crew with some unprecedented R&R. A timely thing, that, as both Naomi and Amos get messages that pull them away from the team for personal reasons that neither one will share: Naomi because doing so would bring to light damaging secrets that she has purposefully withheld from Jim, and Amos because he’s Amos – a large, dangerous man who rarely if ever shares much about his background. Alex also takes the opportunity to head back to Mars to try to tie up some loose ends in the life he left behind when he joined the Martian navy twenty-some years earlier. For the first time in the series, the crew is scattered, cut off from one another, and there is a vague feeling that this may be a harbinger of things to come. After all, nothing lasts forever, right?
Jim, left behind on Tycho Station with the Rocinante, finds himself alone and bereft of purpose save for acting as a sounding board for OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) head Fred Johnson. That is, until reporter and former acquaintance Monica Stuart contacts him asking for help with what looks like a nebulous conspiracy – and all hell breaks loose. The Solar system, already weakened by political strife, defection and massive power shifts, now has to contend with terrorism on an unthinkable scale which finds Jim, Alex, Amos and especially Naomi each separately caught up in the conflict, and trying to find their way back to the only home that any of them have left – each other.
Part of the pure genius of the Expanse series is how author James S. A. Corey is able to take catalytic, even apocalyptic events and keep us, the readers, vested by relating those events on both an immense and a very personal scale. The way the stories are told make us care on a gut level as well as an intellectual one. The characters through which we review these events – both those who stay and who pass through – are not only well developed but imperfect, heroic yet human, relatable and yet beyond us. They keep us grounded even as the world – worlds – we “know” are changed in catastrophic ways.
In Nemesis Games, to witness the which has been to this point a tight knit crew fray and struggle with personal doubts and fears, is the epitome of epic. Not only do we experience their sheer shock and despair at their own roles within the developing collapse of the only social structure they have known, but we also are a party to their determination to thwart what appears to be the inevitable fate of humankind. That this can be done in an exciting, intelligent manner, without contrivance, with no emotional pandering, while still maintaining a sense of massive loss along with individual triumph (at least to some degree), is incredibly rewarding for the reader. And when the very question of “can we go on?” is underscored with a pervading sense of “where do we go from here?”… well, it makes for another absolutely amazing installment of what is turning out to be a consistently superior science fiction – indeed, consistently superior literary – saga.
I can’t wait to see where Messrs. Abraham and Franck take us next.