Nemesis Games is the fifth book in James S. A. Corey’s (actually: Daniel Abraham’s and Ty Franck’s) The Expanse series, and it is the best-written one yet. The series seems to be divided into two trilogies so far. The first trilogy opened with Leviathan Wakes, continued in Caliban’s War, and ended with Abaddon’s Gate.1 It’s solid space-opera in what I like to call the new space opera tradition. That means a hard sf approach with no FTL travel that is set strictly within the confines of the Solar System and frequently features population on Mars, asteroids, and moons of the outer planets.2 The books were good enough to earn a TV adaptation via the re-rebooting SyFy,3 but the novels weren’t as breathtaking for me as a lot of the cover quotes suggested.4
The first book in the new trilogy, Cibola Burn, started out slow. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not, but it also has the most obscure title. Even after looking it up on Wikipedia, I’m not sure which Cibola they are referring to. However, after the slow start, the book turns out to be the best one in the series to date.
Most of the problems with the first trilogy center around the main characters. Jim Holden’s entire personality is reducible to one trait: he thinks everyone should tell everyone else all their secrets about every possible thing all of the time.5 Joe Miller’s entire personality is also reducible to one trait: he is obsessed with finding Julie Mao for opaque reasons that veer creepily between romantic and paternal love. Neither of their motivations make any real sense, and both are so overwhelming that they reduce the characters to caricatures.
Cibola Burn fixes both of these problems. Holden’s reflex is suddenly augmented by instincts approximating common sense and introspection that—at a stroke—make him a vastly more interesting and relatable character. Miller’s obsessiveness is unchanged but—since he’s actually an AI construct instead of a human being—it is a lot less weird.6 It may not be a good thing when your character is more believable as an abstracted personality shard of inscrutable alien technology instead of a real person, but hey; whatever works works. Whether it’s related or not, the relationships between the other characters also start to take off once Holden and Miller are fixed. The camaraderie between unlikely shipmates is so good that you can’t help but be reminded of the very best example there is in the genre: Firefly.
Which brings us to Nemesis Games. This book, the second in the second trilogy, is definitely the best-written to date. This is primarily because the primary characters are deepened and fleshed out even more than in Cibola Burn. The entire plot is structured around character exploration, with each of the primary characters (Jim Holden, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal and Amos Burton) separating and following their own plot lines.7 Along the way, the world-building is also improved and Abraham and Franck do the one thing that all long-running series have to do if they want to stay alive: they shake up their entire created world mercilessly.
The only shortcoming to the book is that at the end of a rather long novel the main plotline has really not moved along much at all. There is basically one major event that takes place, and it’s not enough to sustain an entire novel. The individual character exploration is great, but it would probably have been better suited to a series of stand-alone novellas.8 As a result, and because the book really doesn’t carry nearly as much power as a standalone, I can’t recommend it strongly enough but I also don’t think it’s a good Hugo candidate.
Also: I can’t wait for Babylon’s Ashes.