Through four books in Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham’s Expanse series, if anything is clear it’s that the duo are able to produce consistently quality storylines and characters that evolve in interesting, entertaining ways inherent to the pseudo-realism of the setting. I keep waiting for them to slip up, but pleasantly have had to keep waiting. Unfortunately, the wait is over.
Nemesis Games (2015) is not a cliff. Franck and Abraham have not figuratively or literally lost the plot in the fifth installment of their series. Holden still does what Holden does. The protomolecule still hovers at the edge of complete understanding. And the Earth, Mars, and the Belt still feint, bluff, and stab at one another, occasionally drawing blood. And, if pushed, I would say the book tills new ground in the fact it splits the crew of the Roccinante up, forcing them to cope with various situations as individuals, thus avoiding the chance that the series slips fully into episodic mode: what role do Holden and crew play in this week’s saving of the galaxy??? Tune in to find out…
All that being said, Nemesis Games is the weakest book in the series thus far. Where previous books have all possessed over-the-top plot devices or scenarios, they all were evolved in organic fashion, or at least a fashion that felt natural to the world and characters. Nemesis Games does not do this. I won’t spoil matters, except to say its over-the-top elements are out-of-the-blue (literally), as if the writer duo were looking for ways to extend their series after the initial push of ideas had dried up, or were looking to inject some quick energy and drama. Making these matters worse is that these dramas are handled by the characters in chopped up, semi-coherent fashion. Amos’ storyline, for example, seems more a vehicle to accomplish larger plot machinations than it does to evolve him as a character in parallel to plot. Naomi is likewise caught up in a storyline that pushes the drama truly into the operatic dimension, any sense of realism to her emotions from Leviathan’s Wake now cheapened by the extreme coincidences needed to wind her thread. While Alex and Holden’s storylines are more relatable, all the characters’ storylines are woven together in a manner that, again, feels more subservient to expanding a broader storyline that didn’t need expanding (I realize the irony in this) than it does serve the characters’ needs simultaneously.
But I’ve foregone plot. In Nemesis Games, things begin innocently enough. Holden and crew are stuck on Tycho, awaiting repair of the Roccinante after the stress and abuse it suffered in Cibola Burn. With six-months of wait-time staring the crew down, each decides to go on their own way and take the time to settle personal issues. Heading back to Baltimore, Amos goes to Earth to pay his respects to one of the few people in his life who meant something. Decades having passed since his experiences in the short story “The Churn”, he finds some things never change, and then again, some things do. Guilt hanging heavy on his heart, Alex decides to return to Mars to talk with his ex-wife—a meeting that is much shorter than planned. Naomi heads into Belter space to deal with an ex-lover and, wait for it, child. (There have been one or two hints at this, but nothing even remotely close to foreshadowing the deeper desire she seems to have to connect with them again.) This leaves Holden, alone, aboard Tycho. With nothing but time hanging over his head, he decides to help reporter Monica Stewart when she comes knocking with a bizarre protomolecule ring question.
Where tension was immediate in Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games takes its time building its own. With essentially four plot threads stringing themselves out in the first half of the book, it isn’t clear off the bat what the powder keg will be that sets things off. But when it explodes, it explodes. But, as questioned earlier in this review, is it New Year’s fireworks across the horizon, or an M-80 in the toilet? I go with M-80, but your hopes may be different.
In the end, Nemesis Games is a book that will make people who believe the series is starting to become formulaic, at least think twice. The story starts along very familiar lines (there are no new character viewpoints), but by the end has introduced a meta-element not present in the previous four novels that will be divisive. You’ll either like the “new” direction of the series for being surprising and disruptive in a positive way, or dislike it for being false drama and distracting from the larger concerns raised in previous novels.