Book review: NEMESIS GAMES by James SA Corey


NEMESIS GAMESVerdict: Possibly the best book in THE EXPANSE series to date

I’m a regular and avid reader. I must have a book in progress. I don’t like leaving the house without a book. I can’t help thinking of all those gaps in my day when I could be reading… A ten minute wait at a bus stop. Five minutes over lunch. An hour on a train. All of this reading time adds up. My reading habits demand a constant stream of new and fresh material, and so I usually avoid long books. Some might find that comment sacrilegious, but consider the commitment that comes with starting a long book.

At 500+ pages, THE EXPANSE novels are long. You get started on one, you’re locked in. They’re an event.

Fortunately, when you start a novel by James SA Corey (the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frack) you can be rest assured that your reading commitment will pay off.

NEMESIS GAMES picks up shortly after the events of CIBOLA BURN. The Rocinante is in dock, recovering from her last mission, and for the first time in a long time the crew is without a mission. This results in them being scattered across the Solar System, pursuing their own personal objectives. James Holden stays with the Rocinante, overseeing her repairs. Naomi Nagata receives a personal request to assist an estranged family member. Alex Kamal goes back to Mars, hoping to make good the relationship with his ex-wife. Amos Burton receives news that a former lover has died, and goes back to Earth to pay his respects.

That’s the personal roadmap for these characters during the events of NEMESIS GAMES, but the political one is just as interesting. In some ways fulfilling Chrisjen Avasarala’s prophecy at the end of CIBOLA BURN, the discovery of the alien ring and the promise of new worlds is shifting the power balance within the Solar System. The embers of past animosity are stirring: the Outer Planets Alliance has fractured, and the Belter’s military wing is unhappy with how they are being forgotten by the rest of the human race. This results in a series of devastating terrorist attacks on the major power players within THE EXPANSE universe. Both Mars and Earth suffers at the hands of a newly-emergent force; a group calling themselves the “Free Navy”. It’s both surprising and somehow inevitable that certain elements of the Rocinante’s crew – a group that were at one time running from their past – have a link to this organisation.

NEMESIS GAMES is by far my favourite EXPANSE book to date. It’s perhaps a slower burn than previous books, but it’s all the more power for that. Uniquely among the EXPANSE stories, the focus is not necessarily on Holden. He features, and at times is the driving force, but he’s not the solution to most of the book’s problems. This was a wise decision, I think: although Holden is the series figurehead, there are plenty of other interesting characters in this universe.

Two such characters are Naomi Nagata and Amos Burton. Starting with Naomi, for the (I think?) first time in the series we see through her eyes. I was struck by how little we really knew about her before NEMESIS GAMES. There’s much more to her than just being James Holden’s lover, and the reasons for her past position on the Canterbury become very clear. She’s an interesting character and I very much enjoyed her story arc.

Secondly, Amos Burton. What can I say about Amos? I’ve seen an interview in which one half of the James SA Corey partnership discussed how they really enjoyed writing Amos, and that’s really apparent in NEMESIS GAMES. His chapters were stand-out for me. The character – a semi-reformed thug, in some ways – is compelling. Amos finds himself on Earth during the course of a series of worldwide terrorist attacks, and his plot very quickly develops into a desperate attempt to escape the planet. What’s most interesting here though is how Amos takes it all in his stride; how he processes the disaster and moves on, rather than crumbling in panic. I like Amos a lot. His perspective is quite unique amongst THE EXPANSE characters to date, and his story was also unique: being set predominantly on Earth, and during an event that EXPANSE has hinted at but never really explored. There are other little nods in the book to the wider EXPANSE universe as well – if you’ve read THE CHURN (an EXPANSE novella), it’ll set the Amos Burton sections into a wider context. (Similarly, the Alex Kamal chapters feature the Martian ex-marine Bobbie, and there’s reference to the short story GODS OF RISK.)

NEMESIS GAMES doesn’t immediately explore the alien lifeforms of CIBOLA BURN. This may surprise some readers, but I think that it was a wise decision. To date THE EXPANSE has focussed very much on the Solar System and the power struggle there; the ring has caused a shift in this balance. NEMESIS GAMES deals with the repercussions of CIBOLA BURN, and also suggests where the story might go in future. Perhaps it’s an interlude to the wider developments outside of the Solar System – there are certainly suggestions of larger discoveries, and the constant promise of new worlds for human habitation. Although I can see some readers being frustrated by the decision not to show us the thousand new planets (or at least some of them), equally this is not what THE EXPANSE is about. That said, the final chapter does tease a wider story development – and I’m now very eager for BABYLON’S ASHES, the sixth book in the series!

Finally, I couldn’t help leaving this review with a little self-promotion. I didn’t know this until I picked the book up, but Orbit has included a chapter from my book ARTEFACT at the back of NEMESIS GAMES. I was really pleased with this, and am hoping that – having had a taste of THE LAZARUS WAR – readers will go on to pick up ARTEFACT and LEGION. Both are out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Meanwhile, when are SyFy UK going to pick up THE EXPANSE TV series? It’s been getting fantastic reviews stateside, but still no release date in the UK…

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