If I sometimes complain about the fact that it’s difficult to find self-contained books in SFF literature because nowadays writers seem more inclined toward series, there are exceptions that make me quite happy with narrative cycles, especially when – as is the case of the Expanse series – each book adds something new, broadening and deepening the reader’s understanding of any given fictional world and its characters.
This is particularly true with Nemesis Games: while the focus turns inwards, dealing with troubles in the Solar System rather than with the wider issues of the off-world portal previously introduced, the authors give us deeper insights on the characters, especially with members of the Rocinante’s crew other than Jim Holden, who until now enjoyed a more intense spotlight to the detriment of his mates. This in-depth analysis is carried out by sending Naomi, Alex and Amos on different paths that put great distances between the four shipmates, leaving them alone to deal with extraordinary circumstances that – in various degrees – force them to face events in their individual pasts and the way they affect the present. This narrative choice does not only better our understanding of these characters, but makes for a fast, compulsive reading that brought me to finish the book in record time – indeed the best, so far, of an already outstanding series.
Alex’s trip is the easiest, in my opinion: despite the underlying sadness in his voyage to Mars and the failed attempt to reconnect with his long-estranged ex wife, he’s in a position to be an important player in uncovering a convoluted scheme involving Mars and an extremist fringe of the OPA, the Outer Planets Alliance. While doing so, he teams up with marine Bobbie Draper (a very welcome return) and despite the hazardous path they are forced to travel, there is a definite sense of bonding between them that, together with the repeated mentions about the need to expand the Rocinante’s crew, might lead to some interesting developments as far as the ship’s complement is concerned. It’s clear there are some changes in the making – in the political and social landscape but more importantly in interpersonal relations – so it will be fascinating to witness future developments and how they will pan out: the hints about the lack of redundancy in the ship’s crew, and the closer ties established with other people seem to lead this way. My only concern in this turn of events is that this might be the prelude to some dramatic loss along the way: after all I can’t forget that one of the authors is a close associate of GRR Martin’s, and given the latter’s gleeful penchant for killing his characters I can’t silence my nagging worry about such an attitude rubbing off on Daniel Abraham, and therefore affecting the safety of the original crew-members…
Amos, for his part, undergoes a very interesting journey: he travels to Earth to pay his last respects to a woman who was a sort of surrogate mother, and there he finds himself enmeshed in the catastrophic terrorist attack carried out against the planet. We’ve learned so far that Amos is quite aware of his violent tendencies: the dispassionate way he examines them, or is willing to employ them to further his goals, can be chilling at times, yet there is a sort of basic decency to him, even when he’s in a threatening mode, that quite endeared him to me and made me more aware of his personality. Until now, it felt as if both he and Alex never received much definition, character-wise, to the point that I had some trouble in sorting them out, but thanks to the events of this book, and the fleshing out of both of them into more detailed entities, I can finally see them as distinct individuals and I’ve developed quite a fondness for Amos, mostly due to his interactions with Clarissa Mao, convicted killer and former foe of the Rocinante’s crew: his willingness to forgive her and believe in her change is also a way of forgiving himself and believing he can be a better person, as he tries to be following Holden’s lead.
The character who dominates the scene in Nemesis Games, however, is Naomi. Her own past comes back with a vengeance as we discover the secrets she’s hidden until now – some of them quite dramatic – and we come to see a very different side of the Rocinante’s competent XO, one I admit I would never have suspected given the (admittedly few) details offered by previous books. Being inside Naomi’s head, as she is detained by the OPA terrorist fringe, means understanding how one can be torn between conflicting loyalties – the family she’s built with the others aboard the ship and the one she left behind years before once she realized their ideals were not as pure as she believed. She undergoes an ordeal that is both physical and psychological: the former giving the term ‘breathless’ a whole new level of meaning, lending the story itself a terrible sense of urgency; the latter touching so many subjects – from betrayed love and trust to willful exploitation to ties of blood – that Naomi’s character comes out in incredibly complex and welcome relief, something I realize I was looking forward since the first book.
For once Jim Holden leaves the center stage to his ship-mates, forced to worry about their fates while he observes – more spectator than participant this time – the unfolding of dramatic events and tries to deal with the spaceship equivalent of “empty nest syndrome”, as he chafes at his inability to affect events: “he felt like he was standing on a frozen lake, looking down through the ice while the people he cared about most drowned”. His sense of loss is somewhat mirrored by Fred Johnson’s awareness of diminished power and diminishing energies as old age creeps up on him: it’s ironic how the chief of OPA becomes here a more sympathetic figure through impending powerlessness and the realization that some of the coming changes might overcome him and whatever he managed to build.
The only character to sail through it all virtually unscathed is Chrisjen Avarasala – one of my favorites: she’s the unmovable rock around which everything and everyone seems to revolve, a capable mover and shaker who goes about leaving a trail of unabashed cussing in her wake. It’s impossible not to smile fondly at sentences like “Mars has got its collective asshole puckered up so tight it’s bending light”: I look forward to more of her – more of everyone, really – in the books still to come.
My Rating: 10/10