Nemesis Games (The Expanse)
by James S.A. Corey
Review by Ernest Lilley
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0316217581
Date: 02 June 2015 List Price $27.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Nemesis Games is the fifth book in The Expanse series, and it gives you everything the previous books offered, but kicked up a notch.
The story takes off after the events in Cibola Burn, where James Holden and his tight-knit crew traveled through the alien artifact whose creation was the culmination of the first three books to defuse a crisis on one of the new colony worlds. In the process they got their ship pretty well shot up, so it makes sense that we’d find the Rocinante being refit, while Holden, Naomi, Alex, and Amos cooling their heels at Tycho Station, the massive construct between Earth and the belt and the pride of the Outer Planets Alliance. The Rocinante needs a month or so of deep ship surgery before it can take Holden and crew out tilting at windmills again, and everyone, except maybe Jim, is getting cabin fever.
Alex has been feeling bad about the marriage he walked out on years before and decides to visit Mars and his ex-wife to see if he can come away feeling less like an asshole. Like that's a good idea, right? Amos is heading back to the hell that spawned him, which is to say Baltimore, to pay his respects to the woman that turned him from a gutter snipe to a human being, of sorts, and Naomi is off to do something she can't talk about, leaving Jim more than a little puzzled, more than a little anxious. If he knew where she was going, he’d be a lot more anxious.
With everyone away, he’s more than a little bored, but it's not like that can last.
While Jim’s moping around the ship not bothering to shave, Monica Stewart, the reporter who put a face on things in Abaddon's Gate, gives Jim a call, and asks him out to dinner. My attachment to Holden and the gang at this point is such that my hackles went right up fearing that Ms. Stewart had designs on our boy, who for all his virtues is still just a guy, and frankly, we're just not that smart when it comes to women. Fortunately, Monica has something else in mind. Missing ships.
It turns out that every now and then a ship passing through the Ring doesn't come out the other side. Naturally, Monica suspects the protomolecule, or the aliens who created it. Holden won't go there.
"...the point is that if you hear hoofbeats in the distance, your first guess is that it's horses, nor zebras. And you're jumping straight to unicorns."So he starts digging. First he taps Fred Johnson, the leader of the saner factions of the OPA, and the guy who runs Tycho. By the way, I'd cast Morgan Freeman in the role, but hopefully Chad Coleman (The Wire, The Walking Dead,…), who's been cast for it will do a great job.
Fred tells Jim he's barking up the wrong tree if he thinks the OPA is stealing ships for some purpose, so Holden, in his typical dog with a bone fashion, hires a hacker to dig into the databases and see if the missing ships are popping back up on the grid under new names. It turns out that it's not just colony ships heading through the Ring, but a fair number of Mars' shiny new warships, which is even more troubling if it's the OPA.
So Jim reaches out to Alex out on Mars, who's been hanging out with Bobbie Draper after realizing everything you could hope for in way of reconciliation with the ex. Bobbie, the Amazonian gal in Martian powered armor we met in book two, Caliban's War, has been investigating some odd black market stuff on the sly for her friend, the UN Undersecretary, Chrisjen Avasarala. When Holden taps Alex to see if he can grab a ship and take a look-see somewhere his pet hacker has identified a possible ship, he's up for it. Things haven't been too much fun on Mars, though they were not dull, no sir. So, a little trip with Bobbie, who we remember that he's kind of fond of, sounds like a great idea.
Where's Naomi? She's off getting her son out of trouble. Son? Yeah. Everybody had a life before we met them, and as Jim noted early on, everyone was working on an ice hauling ship with no real future for a reason. IT turns out that Naomi had been living with the dark twin of James Holden when she was younger, and had a son, Filip, by him. Marco, the guy, got Naomi to write some software that would shut down the magnetic bottle of a ship's reactor, which she thought was a good idea as an academic, system testing sort of way. What she didn't know was that Marco wanted it as a tool for getting revenge on the Inner Planet's abuses of the Belters. When she found out about the people he'd killed...she’d killed...she walked out on him, despite his taking her son and hiding him away so she couldn't take him. So there’s that.
Now Filip is a teenager, doing his father's dirty work, and on the run. When Marco reaches out to Naomi to see if she'll help her son it's a request a mother can't refuse.
So, everyone but Jim has gone back to do something or other about getting closure with the life they had before they met, and Jim's working hard supervising the refit of the Roci and hunting down missing ships.
And then everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and we're talking system wide hell, and the devil's own hand basket. The ships turn up, the warships, anyway, Tycho gets attacked, and someone visits Earth with wrath of god type hurt. When that goes down, Amos happens to be visiting Clarisa Mao, who he calls "Peaches", currently serving a life sentence ten stories underground for crimes including, but not limited to, trying to kill the crew of the Roci in Abaddon's Gate. It's no wonder Alex is sweet on her. Turns out that ten stories underground in a maximum security prison is just the place you want to be when wrath of god stuff goes down. As Alex notes, it's not the first time Amos has had a planet blow up under him, so Jim shouldn't worry preemptively.
That's OK, because Jim's got enough to worry about wondering what happened to Naomi, who's gone comms dark and disappeared. I'll let you find out how that sorts out for yourself, but it's bad and it's twisty, and Jim has every right to be worried.
It's a big book, and a lot happens and I won't spoil it all for you. Oddly, even though the last book split the crew down the middle with Jim and Amos on the colony planet and Namoi and Alex in orbit with the Roci, Cibola Burn felt more disconnected somehow. Most likely because Nemesis Games takes place back in the solar system, and it's a mix of separating the core group and reconnecting with friends from past stories. I was especially pleased to see Sgt. Bobbie Draper in this story, less so to find Peaches, but you know, she kind of grows on you.
Everybody gets to grow up a little, or something, in this book. Even though the crew is apart, they're impacting each other in isolation, running their own little simulations of the others to find ways out of predicaments they wouldn't think of on their own. That's a bit of an echo of the presence of the virtual Miller that the protomolecule haunted Holden with until he burned out the last little bit of goo from the Roci, and it's a nice touch.
This is a great yarn on a lot of levels, and I suppose you could start here if you hadn't read the other books, but that wouldn't be a great idea. Starting with Leviathan Wakes, that's a great idea, and I strongly recommend that you get started now before the SyFy channel overwrites your perceptions of the characters with its own interpretations. I think they're going to do a great job, especially considering the writing talent they lined up including Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Iron Man, Children of Men,...), but that's only video, you know? For real excitement you need to read a book.
This is brilliantly written space opera, and anyone who thinks that's not possible hasn't been paying attention. As Gardner Dozois pointed out in The New Space Opera the genre has grown beyond it's roots as a simple action and adventure genre to become some of the best SF around. The stories still have science and technology at their core, there's rarely a dull moment and plenty of heroic doings, but the characters are thoughtful, the opportunities spread out among genders, and both the science and the geo-exp-politics are carefully thought out. The real trick is to do all that and then use it to make a terrific yarn.
The Expanse grew out of a massive multiplayer game that Frank was working up and in which Abraham saw the potential to mine the exhaustive world building that had been done as the setting for the series. Usually it’s the other way around. A game becomes popular and the manufacturer hirers some author who barely wants to be associated with the product to write a novelization. Interestingly, James S.A. Corey was tapped to write the latest Star Wars novel, which garnered a lot of good reviews, but made Expanse fans more than a little nervous.
Nemesis Games should quiet any fears about the team losing focus.