Analysis, inspiration, Reading, Reviews

Theme and Chapter Structure in Nemesis Games

TLDR: This may be the best Expanse book yet! In this post I discuss Nemesis Games and analyze the chapter structure the authors use.

Small SPOILERS for book five of the Expanse series, Nemesis Games, follow.

I’ve criticized the Expanse in the past for not serving up the raw experience of living beyond Earth the way the first book in the series did. I really enjoy the sense of place that the authors are capable of conveying and the reality their writing brings to asteroids, moons, and planets in our solar system.

Nemesis Games does not have a lot of this type of content, but I love it. I think it’s the best books in the series so far, with the possible exception of the first book.

One way Nemesis distinguishes itself is by bringing the theme of family to the forefront. Our heroes are scattered to the wind, but each of them deals with issues of family in their own unique ways. Meanwhile, there is a fuse of mystery burning in the background that explodes in universe-altering fashion midway through. And it’s all written with the research-based world building and lovingly rendered characters the series has come to be known for.

On top of all that, the characters have meaningful things to say. The most interesting small-part character in Nemesis is Cyn, and not only for this line of his:

“Esa coyo on Mars who traded us for all the ships and told us where to find supplies? He’s not ‘Martian economic despair’ o ‘rising debt ratios’ o ‘income and access inequality.'”

Cyn makes this point, that I found powerful, that while pundits, politicians, and analysts talk about this trend and that, there are real individuals whose decisions and daily lives compose broader events. I take this reminder as a call for compassion lest individual human lives be swept beneath the rug of abstraction. Perhaps it’s also a reminder of the power of individuals (or the helplessness). In any case, I was moved.

On to the chapter structure breakdown:

Every chapter reads like a well-crafted short story, some of which could legitimately stand on their own. I noticed that most of the chapters follow this rough structure: 1 introductory reflection, which could be personal or technical or both. 2 a transition into dialogue. 3 an inciting action. And finally 4, a cliffhanger ending or at least a promise of something to come.

I’ll give three examples.

Chapter 20 opens with Alex reflecting on something technical: proprioception – his sense of body reaching out to include the ship around him. Then transitions into the personal: there’s no room for privacy on the small ship and Bobbie is there with him. Next comes dialogue: the two characters discuss events. They interact in ways we haven’t seen before. Then they’re interrupted by external events: “The first sign they weren’t alone…” Which transitions into action and a cliffhanger ending: “He had already lost consciousness.”

Chapter 33 opens with Holden reflecting on the way that terrestrial maps are fixed, but everything in the solar system orbits, so distances fluctuate and the map doesn’t hold still. We then transition into the personal: Holden moves his crews’ possessions back to the Rocinante and feels generally melancholy that everyone is elsewhere. Fred calls, moving the chapter into dialogue. Holden has a personal moment with Drummer. Scene break: Holden goes to talk to Monica. Action / cliffhanger ending: Emergency message! Shut down the reactor before it explodes!

Chapter 35 opens with Naomi having a personal reflection: “Back before, when she had been a girl and not known any better, it had been hard for her to cast Marco as the bad guy.” Moving into dialogue: Marco and Naomi verbally spar, each trying to hold their temper and make the other act out in anger. There is a surprisingly sharp and unclearly-motivated action. Naomi lashes out. Then the chapter ends with the explanation of the action: Naomi’s violence was a diversion to steal something from the medical supplies. Cliffhanger ending promises the unfolding of a scheme.

I don’t know if a similar chapter structure would work for me, but I like to have some ideas in my tool belt should I ever be so lucky (or unlucky) to land a seven-book contract, and the authors of the Expanse clearly know what they are doing.

(EDIT: Wait, there are nine books planned in this series now? Holy cow!)

This post’s image was copied from here.


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