For science fiction fans with more of an interest in kick-ass action than extrapolated mathematical accuracy, The Expanse has been brilliant: a breath of fresh air in a genre with a regrettable tendency to taste stale instead.
And yet, in premise, it isn’t particularly original. In each part of The Expanse so far, an expanding cast of roguish do-gooders have broken the rules to do good in a galaxy on the brink of going bad. Add to that drawback the characters—characters who felt familiar from the first, and haven’t done much to differentiate themselves since—and the setting, which is essentially the same as a hundred other interstellar sagas.
This, then, is a series that really shouldn’t work… but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t.
A large part of the surprising success of The Expanse springs, I think, from the persistent sense that we’ve only just scratched the surface—of this milieu, of these men and women, and of the slowly-unfolding overarching story about humanity’s spread through the one sprawl to rule them all. What we’ve got to work with in the interim is good enough for government work, but greatness awaits in the wings, I warrant.
Or I would have done, a book or two back. Over the years, though, that impression has inevitably lessened. And fun as the series has been, it’s left me feeling increasingly fatigued, even frustrated, by James S. A. Corey’s refusal to to follow through on the awesome promise of his milieu. Since the very beginning, everything about The Expanse has been building towards a confrontation between our species and the protomolecule’s masters, but like the coming of winter in A Song of Ice and Fire, that game-changer has been nearly here for so long that the forecast has started to feel false—and it’s no closer to actually arriving by the end of Nemesis Games, either.
That’s the bad news about this book. Happily, every other development is for the better. If I’m honest, Captain James Holden and his close-knit crew had begun to bore me, such that I was well and truly ready for Corey to call time on a couple of these characters—especially Alex, the Rocinante‘s unremarkable pilot, and Amos, its engineer and would-be brute. One night of Nemesis Games‘ attentive development later and I found myself caring once more about both blokes, not to mention Naomi, the XO, whose previously-mysterious backstory is finally, and fabulously, filled in. Even Holden seems to have grown up some!
Conflicted as I’ve been about this series recently, I still expected plenty from Nemesis Games. I hadn’t dared to expect that, though—nor had I imagined that the state of play across the Milky Way would shift so substantially so suddenly. The tension between the three fragmented factions of humanity—namely the UN, representing Earth, the Martian military, and the Outer Planets Alliance—is not necessarily resolved in Nemesis Games, but it is moved along an awful lot.
How exactly does Corey make all this happen? By taking a breather, basically; by putting aside the ongoing plot to recentre the rest of the series. In that regard, part five of The Expanse plays out a lot like one of the shore leave episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Following their near-death experience on Ilus in Cibola Burns, and the long transit back to Tycho Station for repairs, the crew of the Rocinante find themselves with a bit of a window before they can burn once more into the breach—aka the gates that have opened up travel to a whole new part of the galaxy, thousands of light years away from the inner system and home to who knows what alien intelligence. Sensing that this might be their last chance to do so for the foreseeable future, the comrades go their separate ways, promising to return to the ship they share when its refit is complete.
In the meantime, Alex makes for Mars, the better to reconnect with an ex; Amos heads to Earth to investigate the death of a woman who was something of a mother figure to him; and Naomi takes to Ceres Station, where she hooks up with the cell of Belters she used to run with—not least Marcus, the bad boy she shared her bed with before Holden, and Filip, a credulous kid she feels responsible for, for reasons that become clear almost immediately: he’s her estranged son. He’s also a fundamentalist, like his father, and in the prologue, Filip commits a crime that shakes the solar system to its core.
Holden, for his part, stays put on Tycho Station, where—mostly to have something to do, in truth—he starts looking into the matter of a missing ship. Unfortunately for him, the conspiracy he ultimately uncovers reveals not a few dubious truths about the people he holds nearest and dearest: the crew of the Rocinante.
Ever the goody two-shoes, the Captain takes his increasing concerns to Fred Johnson, Tycho’s top banana and the first of several familiar faces—including Bobbie Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala—with roles to realise in Nemesis Games. It’s nice to see them, no doubt, but brilliantly, the only perspective characters in this particular narrative are Alex, Amos, Naomi and Holden. That’s a number of new points of view, to be sure—only Holden has had the POV treatment in the past—but watching what unfolds from the eyes of these four folks feels like coming home.
Plotwise, there’s not a great deal going on in the character-focused first half of the novel, but it’s the calm before the aforementioned storm, and Corey hasn’t forgotten the forward momentum so crucial to this series’ success, as the second half of the whole shows. Nevertheless, there will be those who see Nemesis Games as a stopgap of sorts.
It’s not. It’s a necessary measure. Beforehand, I was this close to abandoning these characters, and there’s a sense that the author was as well—but instead of giving up on Holden and his, Corey sets them free, lets them breathe, and they’re all the better for it by the end of the book. Or rather, those who survive it are. So I urge you to do what Holden says to Fred:
“Forget what got left behind. […] Forget the robots and the railroad systems that still work after being powered down for a billion years or so. The exploding reactors. Forget lethal slugs and microbes that crawl into your eyes and blind you.”
And remember, instead, why you’re interested in any of this: a much easier case to make in the wake of Nemesis Games.
Nemesis Games is available now from Orbit.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.