Review: Nemesis Games (Paperback)

nemesis_gamesI’ve been taking my reading seriously lately in an attempt to make good my Goodreads Reading Challenge; after a bit of a break, I’ve returned to the Expanse series which I have been enjoying all year with the fifth instalment, Nemesis Games.

I’d previously found the fourth book, Cibola Burn somewhat underwhelming. A bit too “low-fi” and insular, considering the Expanse universe is so huge. Nemesis Games was a welcome true to form – a thrilling and out-of-this-world story that upped the ante even more than previous books have done, but without breaking the sense of feasibility and just-out-of-reachness that the richly-made Expanse has made its hallmark.

Nemesis Games almost, for me, felt a bit like Cibola Burn – a little slow, insular and unaware of the universe around it. It begins with the crew of the Rocinante splitting for the first time ever while the ship is undergoing a major overhaul (which, to be fair, going by the hijinks, it was really overdue). While this, perhaps, breaks up the group dynamic that the crew had it also gave a chance to pause and give each crewmember – Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex a chance to show their backstories a little more.

Of course, I was extremely silly to fall into the trap of thinking: they’ll be back on the Roci in no time to start the proper adventure as the proverbial quickly hits the fan and, about a third in, the book motors into gear. The simple “chores” that each crewmember embark upon end up taking decidedly unexpected and ominous twists.

I feel it was a welcome change of pace to break up the characters from a homogenous group and expand their personalities, backstories and pasts they’d left behind to gallivant across the Solar System. It was an interesting but not laboured way to explore the backstories of these characters. They’re not all angels and it underpins to a degree how they came to be on the Canterbury in the initial book. I thought it a lot more gripping and narratively-deft to finally see what these characters had told us about in previous books to differing degees of detail. And, naturally, these “loyalty missions”, as players of Mass Effect 2 might recognise, do quickly go awry and the plot proper begins to motor ahead.

There’s a real sense of pace and urgency in the latter half of Nemesis Games as events take hold and begin to reach their conclusion and, for the first time I think seriously, the main cast come into jeopardy. Each crewmember seemed more fragile when isolated and unable to communicate. There’s tension, too, which kept me up as it’s a real pageturner. Obviously, the events taking place across the universe are taking a profound and unexpected turn and, for the first time, too, shaking up the established status quo (which, ominously, had seemed stable as the book began).

Nemesis Games is deftly put together, and presents an interesting fusion for the series. I’d almost say this book is two-thirds grand space opera to one-third post-apocalyptic nightmare which is an interesting contrast to say the least; both of these aspects are well-realised but it’s the nacent post-apoc scenes that grabbed me. They’re surprisingly well done and the authors should definitely look at continuing the thread that the events of Nemesis Games present. It’s hard to be less vague without major spoilers which I am biting my fingers to avoid typing!

Nemesis Games was, then, a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent return to form for The Expanse following the somewhat-disappointing Cibola Burn. It also feels like we’re over the hump for the series (nine novels are planned, of which Nemesis Games is the fifth); there’s a seismic shift in the status quo we’ve come to expect from the first four books that’s looking toward how things are changing. Things aren’t going to be the same again.

I’ve seen Nemesis Games described as The Expanse’s Empire Strikes Back. I’m not a massive Star Wars fan but Empire is my favourite. The stakes here are up in the stratosphere and I can’t wait to see how high they really go. Again, a stellar and surprising return to form for The Expanse

Buy Nemesis Games on Amazon UK


Review: Cibola Burn (Paperback)

Cibola_BurnI recently decided it was high time to get back into The Expanse, a series I’d been quite enjoying since discovering it this year (thanks Si!), so I duly purchased the fourth instalment in the series, Cibola Burn.

This book follows on from the events of the third book, Abaddon’s Gate, where the alien protomolecule that had been gestating on Venus has now manifested itself into an entity known as The Ring near Uranus. The Ring leads to what is essentially a hub of other Rings that act as wormholes to faraway galaxies and, for the first time, humanity is able to explore realms outside of the Solar System. Cibola Burn joins the story a few months after the events of Abaddon’s Gate where humanity is now making the first steps to explore these new galaxies and worlds.

It sounds almost too open-ended to comprehend, but I feel Cibola Burn did well to focus not on the macro of the wider universe now being humanity’s plaything, but rather on the exploits and tribulations of the first world that is colonised. Ilos (or New Terra) is a colony in trouble – a new frontier brings the most elemental of societal qualms with it, it seems – in this case, issues of ownership and whether the rule of law that exists many light-years away really counts for much in this new frontier on the very edge of human knowledge.

Like Abaddon’s Gate, I felt Cibola Burn was certainly more subdued than grandstanding, but that sense of personality fitted the struggle of the colony on Ilos/New Terra. It certainly felt like it took a lot of inspiration from tales of colonisation from history – the colonisation of America struck me a little. Does whoever lands first really own the planet? What does a UN charter mean millions of miles away? Conceptually, I did understand why the two factions – the Belters who jumped the gun to land first and the corporate exploratory mission – would have cause for conflict.

I feel that the characters on both sides certainly stoked the fires of the nascent conflict, but again I felt that these characters and their rationales struck me as understandable – and totally human – as these are viewpoints that are observed all the time in 2016. The fear of the Belters that drives them to escalate the conflict with tragic consequences, and the apparent guilt at how the escalation came about; the corporate security whose zealousness to enforce a twisted interpretation of “the rule of law”; scientists who just want to do the work they set out to do; and Holden’s realisation that his mission to broker peace might just be a poisoned chalice designed to fail – all of these points of view seemed to matter because I had empathy for the plight of all of them. Sure, some of the characters were pretty rotten individuals but conceptually I did believe that a degeneration back to “us versus them” mentality and a seemingly-innate suspicion of the other side was a totally human characteristic as it’s happened throughout history, so why wouldn’t it happen in the far future?

That’s not to say that Cibola Burn is entirely introspective – there’s plenty of action; seemingly a curse upon the colony of New Landing. Things steadily escalate in a pattern I come to expect from the Expanse series – so even huge natural disasters that take place with 200 pages to go just make me think there’s even worse to come. It’s also a change of tack for the regular crew of the Rocinante; a definite disconnect between what happens planetside and what’s happening in orbit doesn’t allow the narrative to linger in one place and make its presence unwelcome.

Overall, Cibola Burn was an enjoyable read, and certainly a good instalment in this series. It deals with a lot of the philosophy of the series so far but also sets up what I suspect is to come – the true ramifications of what’s happened in three books so far on the status quo that’s been established. I’m definitely intrigued to see what this change does to the seemingly-immobile organisations and attitudes we’ve seen so far.

Buy Cibola Burn on Amazon UK


Quick Thoughts: Caliban’s War/Abaddon’s Gate (Paperback)

I’ve recently read the second and third instalments in the Expanse series near-enough back-to-back, so I’m truncating my (spoiler-free) reviews into one post!

Calibans_WarCaliban’s War was a suitable escalation of the events at the climax of Leviathan Wakes, and it was, for me, a great ride all the way through! Yes, the similarities between the events of Eros (Leviathan Wakes) and Ganymede were there, but given what happens in Leviathan Wakes, the escalation in Caliban’s War is certainly feasible. I felt the main cast on the Rocinante are explored to a bit more depth, which was nicely done. There’s a bit of breathing space for a tiny bit of normalcy before the plot events inevitably engulf them.

Overall, the narrative ratchets up in a smooth and linear fashion, building up to the frenetic and exciting climax that I’m seeing become a hallmark of this series. The entire book is a powder keg that the last few chapters really light the touch paper on. Along with Holden’s perspective, there’s a few new perspectives that events are seen through: Praxidike Meng’s understandable anguish and desperation over the events of Ganymede is an interesting alternate to Holden’s righteousness. But it was Bobbie Draper, the Martian Marine, and Chrisjen Avasarala, the highly-placed UN official that really endeared to me, especially when working together. These two characters built up a much clearer picture of the internal politics and inevitable skulduggery of the Expanse universe that seemed almost fated against their genuine wish for the just thing to be done. The sense of tension and urgency of speeding around the universe trying to prevent the outbreak of war was both epic in scale and quite intimate, from the character perspectives; a single person is a very small cog, after all.

I was slightly disappointed in the characterisation of the antagonist of the story. It was good for the book to avoid the trope that all futuristic/sci-fi Earth governments are, indeed, homogenous blobs that always agree but rather reflected a more human sense of branches of government, ostensibly on the same side, working against and to undermine each other with each’s belief they are doing the correct thing. However, the antagonist did seem to fall into the trap of being a classically clamped-shut military mind whose answer to the unknown is to simply shoot first and ask questions later. It wasn’t a deal-breaker for me though.

I really enjoyed Caliban’s War, as you might be able to tell. It was a great, easy read that dragged me right back into a universe that, again, shows a lot of thought and consideration behind it.

Abaddons_GateAbaddon’s Gate was a bit different. Initially it helped me understand a bit better the ending to Caliban’s War (I may have suffered from finishing that book at 3AM) with the new status quo, but I felt this third book was considerably more subdued in terms of both the narrative and setting.

A great deal of Abaddon’s Gate takes place in the “slow zone” where ships can only operate at very low speeds, fittingly. My concern with this setting – for a large portion of the book was that it prevented a bit of action. I quite liked the real sense of claustrophobia – even in the vastness of space – and the tensions leading from that felt very real and relatable.

However, I do feel that for a portion of the middle of the book, the narrative sagged into introspection which robbed the action somewhat. Maybe I was pining for Draper and Avasarala from Caliban’s War; great characters but I realise they needn’t be overbaked. The new perspective characters in Abaddon’s Gate did themselves undergo personal change as the story progressed. The universe got a lot bigger, and the politics between the Inner Planets both brought about tension and became, as the climax approached, an irrelevance really.

I was pleased though, that despite a bit of a sag, the stakes for the final climax of Abaddon’s Gate couldn’t have gotten any higher and, it made up plenty for the lack of action the middle section of the book may have suffered from.

I didn’t dislike Abaddon’s Gate by any stretch; maybe allowing the book to take a bit of a breather helps the series as a whole. I still wholeheartedly enjoyed the adventure. But, happily, I can’t wait to get stuck into the next instalment to see, as with Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, how the characters handle the brave new world Abaddon’s Gate leaves them with!

Buy Caliban’s War on Amazon UK

Buy Abaddon’s Gate on Amazon UK