There comes a point in any long running book series when things start to get stale. But that’s not the case with the latest entry in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Nemesis Games. In it, the gloves come off and the balance of power in the solar system is turned upside down. This is Corey’s Empire Strikes Back.
Some spoilers ahead.
In Cibola Burn, the protomolocule’s gate has opened the doors to innumerable worlds for humanity, and a movement to colonize new planets is underway. But, it’s not all good news for the solar system’s power struggle: Mars’ terraforming project is threatened by the mass exodus, and the Belt is seeing its own sources of supplies and resources dwindling.
Following their disastrous mission to Ilus, Captain James Holden and his crew are scattered across the solar system: Amos returns to Earth to pay respects to a deceased friend, Alex returns to Mars to reconnect with loved ones, and Naomi is called by secrets in her own past, while Holden is recruited to look into the disappearances of ships in the solar system.
At the start of Nemesis Games, the worst case scenario unfolds: Ships have begun to disappear across the solar system, and a brazen attack against Earth and Mars plunges the solar system into chaos. Each of the crew of the Rocinante are caught up in the action as the solar system is torn apart.
It’s not hard for a series like this to run out of steam: familiar characters are safe from harm, stories become recycled or worse, boring. The opposite has happened here: Corey (a joint pseudonym for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) has cranked the volume up to 11, and never lets up on the sense of urgency.
For the first time, we don’t have a host of new characters coming in to share the story with Holden and his crew. Instead, Amos, Alex and Naomi are each given space as the book’s main distinct voices, and this exposure is overdue.
Since the beginning of the series, we’ve seen these four characters work and live together, but we’ve never really seen how anyone views them outside of Holden’s viewpoint. Corey is doing something interesting with this series, viewing the system and the events that have plagued it through a growing chorus of voices. By playing with the rest of the crew, we get a sense of the backgrounds of these characters before they shipped out together for the first time, and it’s a level that we never quite realized we needed.
As we get deeper into the lives of our characters, Nemesis Games turns into a complicated solar-political story: radicalized Belters declare war on the rest of the system, attempting to kill the political leaders of Earth and Mars, and worse. The undercurrents of racism and economic inequality that have shaped Corey’s world come up front and center.
With Nemesis Games, Corey seems to be making several points, each of which are highly relevant for the world today.
First, radical actions and movements don’t come out of thin air: they’re born out of inequality and racism, often at the hands of those who are willing to overlook the human cost of their actions. In the Belt, each day is survival, and there’s some clear parallels between the War on Terror and the actions of the OPA’s Free Navy movement.
Second, the violent actions of terrorists rarely speak for the entirety of a people: Rather, they’re conducted by individuals looking to expand their own power, latching on to whatever is convenient to get people to follow them and act in their name.
These themes play out between each character as we ping-pong across the solar system. Familiar faces return, from Carissa Mao to Bobbie Draper to Chrisjen Avasarala, each adding their own unique perspective to the larger story that’s played out, and it’s clear that this is the most ambitious Expanse novel yet.
Corey hasn’t shied away from tough issues, and Nemesis Games is the best and most devastating installment of the series to date because of that. With every new novel, Corey focuses in even more: the action, characters and story all focus and pick up that much more, and it’s a solid demonstration that the Expanse is getting bigger and better with every installment. Already, we’re eager to see what happens next.