Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit, 2014
Series: Book 4 in The Expanse
“The gates have opened the way to a thousand new worlds and the rush to colonise has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity's home planets. Illus, the first human colony on this vast new frontier, is being born in blood and fire. Independent settlers stand against the overwhelming power of a corporate colony ship with only their determination, courage and the skills learned in the long wars of home. Innocent scientists are slaughtered as they try to survey a new and alien world.
James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the heart of chaos. But the more he looks at it, the more Holden thinks the mission was meant to fail. And the whispers of a dead man remind him that the great galactic civilisation which once stood on this land is gone. And that something killed them.” ~WWEnd.com
I’ve gotten back into The Expanse, by participating in a months-long read-along of the series to date! Right now, we’re in the middle of Babylon’s Ashes, and I’m finally starting to catch up with my overall reviews. Cibola Burn is discussed in spoiler-filled detail here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. I don’t intend to give away any major plot points in this review, but do keep in mind that it is the fourth book of a series. This is a series that needs to be read in order, so there are necessarily some plot spoilers of previous books.
At the end of book three, it seemed clear that the next novel would involve the many planets opened up to humanity through the gates. Cibola Burn does not disappoint on that account, revolving as it does around colonization rights to a new planet known as Illus or New Terra by Belters and Inners, respectively. The planet itself is really interesting, and I like that this series has a bit more of a twist on the ancient, vanished alien civilization. Illus has its own alien flora and fauna, while also bearing the marks of occupation by the gate makers. There’s also the lurking threat of whatever destroyed the gate-maker civilization, and the fear that some remnant of it might remain. Sparking things into action, Holden is bringing the protomolecule to the planet through the form of ghost-Miller. Safe to say, the planet has a complicated history and biosphere, and it presents some interesting and dangerous challenges to the sudden human intruders. This ‘alien’ side of the story kept me well and truly hooked.
The human side of the story was in some ways less compelling. Holden arrives to mediate a dispute between a corporation that has mounted a scientific expedition, and colonists who have settled the planet with no authorization. This might sound like a story about an evil corporation against plucky survivalists, but the corporation actually seems to intend to act in good faith all around. The conflict that pulls Holden to the system is perpetrated by a very small subset of people on each side. Unfortunately, one of those people is the violent, cardboard villain who holds control of the corporation’s security force. His motivations seemed incredibly thin, so I didn’t ever fully understand why he was so dedicated to causing suffering. I appreciated the more complicated villains of Abaddon’s Gate, and this felt like a step back. While there were plenty of legitimate reasons for friction between the two populations, having this plotline pushed primarily by a single evil person made the conflict feel forced. I was much more interested in how the people would respond to the threats that arose from the alien planet itself.
For another thing, the viewpoint characters, aside from Holden, were also a bit bland. I didn’t really dislike any of them, but none of them really had the strength of character of Bobbie or Avasarala, for example. Their perspectives are worthwhile--corporation scientist Elvi, angry colonist Basia, and corporation security member Havelock--but there seemed to be pretty long stretches of downtime in each of their stories. Some of their subplots felt more like filler than necessary for the overall story. It was nice to see the situation from each angle, but at the same time I just wished there was a bit more for them to do. In a broad sense, though, the events of Cibola Burn have interesting implications for the future of the series. Finishing this novel left me eager to move on to the next, because I am still invested in the overall story of this universe and the adventures of the crew of the Rocinante.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Cibola Burn is probably my least favorite of the series to date, but I am still on board for continuing the series. The story features an alien planet with a complicated history, and I enjoyed watching our characters slowly unravel its story. On the other hand, the human conflict of the story was driven by cardboard villains and shown through the perspectives of some unremarkable viewpoint characters. I felt like most of the non-Holden storylines had just too much filler and not enough of the main story. It’s still an important volume in the continuing story of The Expanse, it just didn’t thrill me as much as some of the others have.