Book Review of “Nemesis Games,” Fifth in The Expanse Novel Series

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Cover art for the novel “Nemesis Games.”

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James S. A. Corey is the pen name of fantasy author Daniel Abraham and writer Ty Franck, who once again return with Nemesis Games, the fifth edition in the Expanse novel series.

Actually, the first misstep in the story is the raid conducted by the belter thug Filip and his band of any man left behind gets killed on Callisto a year before the book really begins. It’s clear they’re stealing tons and tons of stealth material, stealthy, but that means it still have lots of mass. Yes, they get away with it, but stealth doesn’t mean immaterial (you still have to cover three really, really big rocks with it).

Ever since that moment, the owners act like they can’t figure out what was taken? What? It was stealthy so now that it’s gone, you can’t figure out what was there in the first place? You don’t have cargo manifests? You don’t have lot assignments? I guess it’s to keep the readers from figuring out too soon that the radical Free Navy version of the OPA run by Filip’s Daddy Marco Inaros is going to drop a bunch of rocks on Earth.

A year later, the Rocinante is in dry dock at Tycho undergoing major repairs, probably the first such overhaul since entering service with Jim Holden and his crew. This is also the first major downtime for the crew, Amos, Alex, and Naomi, in a long time.

In every previous novel, the action centered around some combination of the Roci and crew doing something affecting what was going on around them. Now, Naomi’s suggestion is that with them having a minimum crew of four, they might want to pull aboard a couple of extra hands “just in case.” On some level, this bugs everyone. They’re not just crew, they’re family. They have an intimacy and a rhythm that transcends crew.

For most of the novel, we end up seeing how each crew separately, form their own individual “families” in order to get things done, which in the end is usually surviving.

Amos gets the first message which he takes in a rather nonchalant manner given it’s a death in the family. The woman who had raised him in Baltimore has died. Amos needs to go down the well to see if her death were natural or murder. If natural, he puts a flower on her grave and it’s done. Foul play, and Amos will track down and kill her murderer. Turns out it all ends up going south, starting out with his drawing deputy chief of the U.N. Avasarala’s attention. She can’t imagine Amos being on Earth without the express orders of Holden.

Oh, as a small example of something the author’s never would have intended to say in this context, I got a kick out of Amos in the following:

“Thank you for flying with us,” a pleasantly nondescript face said from the video screen next to the exit. The voice was carefully crafted to have no specific regional or obvious gender markers. “We hope to see you again soon.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Amos said into the screen with a smile.

“Thank you, sir,” the face replied, actually seeming to look at him in the eye. “TransWorld Interplanetary takes your comments and suggestions seriously.”

On Tycho, reporter Monica Stuart tries to convince Holden and OPA head Fred Johnson that ships have been disappearing out past the ring for over a year. She’s aware that Johnson has the only live culture of protomolecule known to exist and wants to use it as a sort of Ouija board. Johnson and Holden reject her suggestion out of hand, but after doing a little digging, Jim finds that a number of Martian military vessels seems to have disappeared. He thinks its as simply as switching out transponder signals and by his count that almost works. He locates an area in the Belt near Mars that may provide a clue. But then that’s before Monica goes missing (Don’t worry, Jim and Fred find and rescue her, but never find out who does the kidnap job).

Alex, the least complicated member of the crew, decides something he’d said about abandoning his wife a decade or more ago on Mars needs resolution and so goes home. His wife rejects him instantly, but Holden suggests he contact former Marine Bobbie Draper about the missing Martian ships. Oddly enough, at Avasarala’s request, she’s been doing the same investigation. It’s enough for them to both be assaulted, and when they recover, they use Julie Mao’s old racing pinnace the Razorback, which Avasarala made available to them.

With the Prime Minister of Mars on a trip to Luna with a small group of military ships to address the growing threat of belters attempting to deny the inner planets access to the rings, Alex and Bobbie encounter a bunch of Martian military ships which immediate attack them. While Alex is an excellent pilot, it would take a miracle to survive. He thinks he’s found one if he can get the pinnace within the defense grid of Martian Prime Minister’s convoy in time. What no one knows is that Naomi is already on board the attacking Martian ship.

Jim didn’t imagine that Naomi had anywhere to be except with him, which is why her sudden plans to leave catch him by surprise. She gets a covert message that Filip is in trouble and needs help getting off Ceres. Remembering her inadvertent “outlaw” life when she was with Marco, including when he used her to develop a program that dropped the protective layer between a ship’s fusion reactor (Marco’s first act of terrorism), she thinks Filip is about to be arrested. She books passage to Tycho, not sure how she can help.

Naomi finds she’s shadowed by a group of old Belter friends and eventually re-enters their company. They’re surprised she didn’t bring the Roci (and Jim Holden?) which would have made getting Filip off of Ceres and to a secure part of the Belt near Mars a lot easier.

She tries to make amends with Filip, who she last saw when he was one, but he’s long been indoctrinated to believe that she was weak for not celebrating the destruction of an “enemy” ship,” and that Marco had to project Filip from her. Naomi “buys” a cheap spaceship which will be enough to get Filip and the rest, including friends who still feel affection for her, off Tycho. However, in a surprise move, one of her old friends abruptly drugs and kidnaps her.

Oh, it gets worse.

Once she arrives at her destination and is re-acquainted with her former lover, Marco needs to convince Naomi that his ego-maniacal plans are good, right, etc… He also needs her simulated voice coming from the cheap ship she brought to lure Holden and Roci in for a trap, one where she ship’s containment bottle suddenly fails.

Alex and Bobbie make it to the safety of the convoy, which is still under attack by “Martian” forces. Re-enforcements arrive but guess what? They attack the convoy, too. The solution is to get the PM off in the Razorback. In order to get Bobbie and her combat armor into the pinnace, she has to rip out one of the acceleration couches (the armor does the same thing). Then, with nearly a 100 missiles accompanying them which Alex can control, thanks to the convoy, they race toward Luna.

Then the sky falls.

Before leaving Earth, Amos decides to visit “Peaches,” what he calls mass murder, terrorist, and the girl with the most “Daddy Issues” in the Solar System Clarissa Mao, in her high tech, maximum security underground digs. That’s where he is when one…and then all three rocks fall, potentially starting the planet on its next extinction level event.

It’s Amos, so not only does he, Clarissa, and several others make it to the surface (Amos only cares about Peaches), but they make it through human and environmental hazards, pick up a few Baltimore thugs, and make it to the rich people islands where they store their “rockets for the wealthy.” Only one’s left but Amos, Peaches, and one of the racketeers, are all skills, so no problem. Easily off the Earth and on toward Luna, but that’s not the hardest part.

In the middle of all this, someone tries to kill Holden and Johnson and worse, they actually do steal the protomolecule from Johnson’s office safe, something almost no one was supposed to know exists (and no one not even Marco takes responsibility for the theft). The Roci is ready and through a covert message from Naomi, they detect the sabotage to the projective ring’s programming in time. With that out of the way, and with a substitute crew on board, make their way toward Luna.

Another thing I found the authors included that they might not have intended that way (but I really appreciated):

Fred looked over to him with a weary smile. ” ‘Be angry at the sun for setting if these things anger you.’ A poet named Jeffers said that.”

“Yeah, but was he talking about journalists and politicians lying to each other?”

“Matter of fact, he was.”

The most dramatic rescue was Naomi’s from her own suicide attempt. Not that she really was trying to kill herself, but it had to look that way.

She’s found a rescue chip that when inserted into the body, could provide the blood supply with six minutes of oxygen, hopefully getting her from Marco to the other ship where she really wasn’t supposed to be on, the ship rigged to explode because Marco wanted Jim to think Naomi was their and get blown up.

Naomi could make it to the airlock, but a missing spacesuit would be obvious. Cyn tried to stop her out of the most sincere motivations, which made it all the much harder.

It worked. Cyn died and Naomi made it to the other ship with no one thinking other than she’d killed herself. The “trip” did a great deal of damage but she found herself (more or less) functional afterward. Now, with no control access, no tools, no way to make anything on the ship work, she has to figure out how to communicate.

Holden and the Roci see the ship and ask Alex and the Razorback to carefully take a look. No one trusts the situation, but if there were any possibility Naomi were on board alive…

Then they see a figure exit an airlock in a small spacesuit. The figure is making Belter hand signals indicating explosion hazard, danger, four minutes of air.

Managing to maneuver the Razorback close enough, Bobbie in her armor, performs a rescue hold on Naomi, puts an oxygen bottle into her suit (the air recycler gave her about 5 minutes of air) and got her back over to the Razorback. After that, it was to the Roci and the med bay.

Everyone’s on Luna. By some miracle, Amos convinces Avasarala to ignore the felons she’s just introduced to the Moon, including Clarissa Mao. Of course, Holden went nuts when Amos suggested Peaches become part of the crew, but nothing was said about bringing Bobbie into the family.

Naomi’s rather dubious legal status seems more postponed, but she’s part if the last mystery.

Marco’s New Navy, supposedly representing any Belter who has always lived on the verge of air, water, food, or other form of starvation and who was finally facing extinction as the inner planets moved out into the rings, is now blockading the outer Belt. Why did they think bombing the Solar System’s breadbasket would make humanity want to stay or help? Even with so many “Navy” ships, how many bodies do you have to fill them? Could Belter-friendly habitats have been found in some of the other Solar Systems?

On three separate occasions, Avasarala, Monica Stuart, and finally Naomi all point out the same thing. Marco didn’t have the resources to pull off such a grand adventure. He no doubt thought he did, but in any practical sense, it never would have been sufficient. That’s why events at Medina Station are so important. Ships are still disappearing.

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