Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review - Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Short review: The crew of the Rocinante all head off to take care of personal business. Then the entire solar system collapses into chaos.

Some angry belters
Steal from Mars and shower Earth
Everything changes

Full review: Nemesis Games is the fifth book in the Expanse series, and despite being part of a series that has seen the discovery of alien life, the opening of the gateway to the stars, and human colonization of alien worlds, this is the book in which the biggest change takes place. It turns out that not everyone is happy with the changes that are happening in the universe of the Expanse, and rather than simply accept them, they have decided to take drastic action to keep the status quo, even though that status quo is one they have railed against for their entire lives. This book also structurally moves in a new direction, splitting up the crew of the Rocinante for much of its length, and using the four crewmembers as the primary viewpoint characters.

Following on after the events of Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games starts with an interlude in which a team of Belters, led by a young man named Filip, attack a Martian military outpost on Callisto, killing most of the garrison, destroying much of the facility, and making off with a substantial volume of classified military equipment. This section is quick, brutal, and devastating, which sets the tone for much of the book. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante has made the long, slow journey back from Illus/New Terra to Tycho so that they can repair their mangled ship. The only trouble is that the repairs needed are quite extensive and will take quite a long time to complete, and the various crew members all start to get itchy feet, and one by one they leave to take care of personal business and get some character development.

Alex heads off to Mars to try to find some sort of closure with his ex-wife who stayed with him through his roving Navy years, but it turned out he wasn't very good at being married when he retired and they had to actually live together. Amos returns to Earth after learning of the death of Lydia, a woman who was an important mother-figure to him during his youth. Finally, Naomi heads to Ceres, drawn by a message that she refuses to reveal the contents of to Holden, on a mission she refuses to talk about, but which is firmly connected to her mysterious past. For the most part, the reasons they head their separate ways turn out to not really matter: Alex's reunion with his ex-wife goes about as well as one might expect a meeting between estranged ex-spouses would go, while Amos' mother figure is still dead and the old neighborhood he used to live in has changed a lot and mostly forgotten him, although he is still able to make arrangements to provide for Lydia's widow. Both Alex and Amos more or less drift into new difficulties, as Alex teams up with Bobbie to investigate irregularities in the Martian Naval supply chain, and Amos finagles a visit with Clarissa Mao, who, following the events in Abaddon's Gate, is firmly ensconced in the most secure prison Earth has. Each of the men more or less stumbles into the main plot of the book, or rather, the main plot of the book almost literally crashes into their lives.

Naomi, on the other hand, gets entangled in the main plot of the book almost immediately. It turns out that Naomi's enigmatic past includes a son, who turns out to be none other than Filip from the first chapter of the book, and Filip's father is Marco Inaros, the leader of a splinter group of the OPA that is on the furthest and most extreme anti-Earth end of the group's spectrum. It turns out that Inaros and his followers have been planning something big, and when they put their plan into effect, it changes the direction of the entire Solar System. It turns out that some Belters aren't happy about the fact that humanity now has access to at least a few thousand new planets to settle upon, and feel like they are about to be left behind - cast aside without a thought by the rest of the human race as it stampedes through the alien gate to live upon the freshly available alien worlds. To voice their displeasure, Inaros and his gang more or less set out to destroy human civilization, although they aren't willing to admit to themselves that that is what they are doing. Instead, they assert that they are protecting the Belt from the unscrupulous and uncaring denizens of the inner planets, and setting their own people free to pursue their own destiny.

The real problem with Inaros' plan is that Inaros is simply not nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. Inaros is one of the most compelling and hateable villains to appear in genre fiction in recent years, and part of what makes him so compelling are his rather obvious flaws. Inaros is not stupid, but once the reader encounters him via Naomi, it quickly becomes clear his personal charisma has allowed him to bluster through his schemes going awry for much of his life, and as a result, he has come to believe his own propaganda about his abilities. The fascinating thing about Inaros is not that his plan is fatally flawed and probably inherently self-defeating, but rather that he is able to sell his plan to people who really should know better. Through almost sheer force of personality, Inaros is able to convince his collection of followers not only to engage in mass murder on an epic scale, but also to fairly obviously follow a course of action that is almost guaranteed to get them and all of those they claim to be defending also killed, although slowly and painfully. The Expanse series has had technocratic sociopathic villains, revenge-driven obsessed villains, amoral murderous villains, and incompetent villains, but Inaros is the first charismatic villain in the series, and his combination of evil cunning, duplicity, and at times almost buffoonish stupidity makes him one of the most interesting villains the series has produced.

All of the four storylines converge, which is pretty much to be expected, but the real meat of the story belongs to Naomi, which is interesting because Naomi spends most of the volume unable to actually do much of anything, as Inaros holds her prisoner and alternately tries to woo her and threaten her. This helps to flesh Inaros out as a character, and makes both his strengths and glaring flaws stand out quite vividly, but it does more or less sideline Naomi for a substantial portion of the book. This is the second book in a row in which Naomi has been captured so that she could serve as a conduit for the reader to understand the position of the "other side" in the central conflict of the story, and while this has been a fairly effective technique for the authors, it is a trend I hope doesn't continue. Aside from the fact that putting Naomi in danger to humanize the villains and motivate the crew of the Rocinante is kind of tedious and predictable, it also kind of limits Naomi as a character in some ways.

The central theme of Nemesis Games is change. Each volume of the Expanse has seen major shifts in the structure of the world, but this volume is the first in which the political, economic, and military landscape has been completely reshaped. The novel also continues the recurring themes of the series of "when faced with inscrutable alien technology, humans try to kill one another" and "Holden more or less make every situation he comes across worse". In addition to the large scale shifts in the political and military balance of power, there are smaller changes in the fictional world as well, as two new (and somewhat unexpected) potential crewmembers for the Rocinante find their way into the narrative. The only real weakness of the book is that the story it tells is markedly incomplete, essentially halting in the middle of the action to put off on finishing the primary plot until Babylon's Ashes. This is also a change for the series, which until now has been mostly self-contained stories that leave a few threads dangling, but basically wrap up their plots within one volume. Nemesis Games, on the other hand, is clearly only the first part in a two-part story.

The Expanse series is currently projected to total nine books, which makes Nemesis Games the exact middle of the story. As such, it seems fitting that this book would be the pivot point where the story rotates to an entirely new paradigm, and that appears to be what the authors have done. The changes wrought on the universe of the series in this installment are dramatic and far-reaching, and at the same time feel completely organic, and in hindsight, almost expected. This is a big, bold story that also manages to make room for some interesting character development and interaction. In short, Nemesis Games is both an unexpected twist to the ongoing story of the Expanse and at the same time, exactly what the series needed.

Previous book in the series: Cibola Burn
Subsequent book in the series: Babylon's Ashes

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