Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
In my review of the third EXPANSE novel from James S.A. Corey (actually a collaborative effort from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), I said this:
How did Corey do, based on strengths I highlighted in reviews of the first two books?
- fluid prose: check
- likable characters: check
- mostly strong characterization: check
- humor that runs throughout: check
- nice balance of shoot-em-up action, political fighting, and personal conflicts: check, check, and check
- quick pace that had me knock of a 500+ page book in a single setting: check
- a feel (in a good way) of old-time sci-fi along the likes of Heinlein or Asimov: check
- a ratcheting up of tension and stakes: check and check
- a sense of risk thanks to not all the characters making it to the end? check
- an ending with both some resolution and an opening up that will leave you waiting for the next one? Check and damn-you-check
These guys are so consistent, I could probably already review book four by just cutting and pasting the above and changing the title. (Hmmm, note to self… )
Well book four, Cibola Burn (2014), is now out and well, you’ll note I’ve cut and pasted the above. So I’m done here. See you at book five.
Um, OK. Turns out Kat, Queen of our domain (really, she registered the domain name using “Queen”), says I cannot just cut and paste old reviews on here. Something about contract, signed in blood, first-born, yada yada yada. So let me say a few more things about Cibola Burn (warning, doing so necessitates some spoilage of books 1-3, so if you care about that sort of thing and haven’t read those, come back after you’ve done so. Also, I’m not going to bother explaining acronyms, etc. on the assumption you’ve already read those first novels).
At the end of Abaddon’s Gate, humanity had discovered the alien gateway to thousands of other systems. Cibola Burn opens up a few years later, just as the first explorations are beginning. Or so it was thought. But when the properly UN-Sanctioned RCE charter ship arrives with some corporate interests looking to mine the planet’s lithium and also bringing along a bevy of drooling scientists who can’t wait to get their (properly sterilized) hands on the first pristine biosphere of an Earth-like planet, a group of Belters has already squatted on the planet and begun mining operations. Fearing eviction, an adamant group of “Hell no, we won’t go” settlers plan to blow up the one landing pad on the planet so the RCE ship can’t, well, land. But since that happens in the first 15 pages of a 600-page novel, one might imagine things go awry. Soon, the settlers and the RCE are in an all-out shooting war (Imagine homesteaders and cattle barons) and the big guns back in Sol system decide to send in our main protagonist from books one through three — Holden, captain of the Rocinante — as mediator. Why? Because:
At the beginning of the war between Mars and the Belt, he had been the most important man in the solar system, and the celebrity, while it had waxed and waned over the years, had never gone away. James Holden was an icon. For some, he was the symbol of the triumph of the single ship over governments and corporations. For others, he was an agent of chaos who started wars and threatened stability in the name of ideological purity. But whatever people thought he meant, there was no question that he was important. He was the man who’d saved Earth from the protomolecule. He was the man who’d brought down Mao-Kwikowski. Who’d made first contact with the alien artifact and opened the gates that led to a thousand different worlds.
When Holden arrives, not only does he have to deal with the tensions between the settlers and the RCE, exacerbated by the murder-is-fine extremists in the settler resistance group and the psychopathic murder-is-fun security chief (Murtry) of the RCE, but it turns out that:
a) an “Earth-like” planet is just that, only like Earth, and this one has lots of non-Earthy things that can kill you, blind you, or leave very large welts and
b) the dead alien technology on the planet isn’t actually dead, it’s only been sleeping (or stunned or pining for the fjords) and is now waking up and
c) those far, far more advanced aliens that built said technology were apparently knocked off by something even more advanced (or at least nastier). Or, as one character puts it: “You think somebody built those towers and structures and then just left? This whole planet is a murder scene. An empty apartment with warm food on the table and the clothes still in the closets. This is some Croatoan shit.”
So either in the course of the aforementioned events, or in the course of trying to stop the aforementioned events, things explode, a bunch of people shoot at/get shot by a bunch of other people, more things explode, prisoners are taken, slugs get hunted, people have sex, doctors race against time, prison breaks are attempted, engineers race against time, dead people show up to offer advice, bigger things explode, and Holden keeps repeating, “We have got to get off this planet” (though things aren’t so great in orbit above the planet either).
It’s all a lot of fun. And often funny as well; I laughed aloud many times at the often wry dialogue. The action does take a while to get going. Holden doesn’t make an appearance for some time, instead we’re introduced to some new characters: Basia, a member of the settler resistance group who is having some second thoughts about what he is doing; Elvi, a biologist who would rather politics didn’t get in the way of her science; and Havelock, Murtry’s second-in-command. Basia is an intriguing, complex character right from the start and Havelock develops into one as well by the book’s close, each of them with raising large ethical questions. Elvi isn’t quite as strongly developed unfortunately, and her character is burdened by a less-than successful portrayal of a “crush” she has on Holden.
When the Rocinante does show up, the action moves into a higher gear, especially in the last quarter or so where it shifts pretty much into warp speed. Holden is a great old-time sci-fi type character, and if his crew is relegated to somewhat smaller roles than prior books, more role players, they play those roles exceedingly well. Amos, for instance, is mostly stuck doing big-tough-guy talk, but it’s hysterical big-tough-guy talk and I could listen to it all day. And Miller, our dead detective reanimated from book one, his relationship with Holden and their dialog remains a highlight of the book.
Beyond the fun aspects, Cibola Burn does tackle some weighty issues and doesn’t shy away from some real-world analogues. Here, for instance, is Amos’ response to hearing that some of the security people were killed by the settler resistance group: “Oh good. Somebody got killed there. That’s how we claim stuff, you know. This planet is officially our now.” There are several such references to our less-than stellar past with regard to colonization, as well as humanity’s tendency toward violence.
Cibola Burn isn’t the best of the EXPANSE books. In fact, it might be the weakest. But seriously, the bar is set so high that I’ll happily take a “weaker” EXPANSE novel over 90 percent of what’s out there. If you haven’t started this series, you absolutely should — it’s one of the best things going now. And if you have, you’ll be happy to be back in this universe. Highly recommended.
Bill is right that the weakest book in THE EXPANSE series is still probably in the top ten percent of “best space opera” you’ve read. He is also right that Cibola Burn is the weakest book to date (I haven’t read Nemesis Games or Babylon’s Ashes yet).
This short review many contain mild spoilers for previous books in the series.
This is the first book to take place outside of our solar system, when a group of Belters set up a wildcat colony on one of the planets reachable through the alien-tech stargate-ring. The Belters, many of whom are refugees from the destruction of Ganymede, just want a home, but now an Earth corporation has shown up with a UN charter (although why the UN would have any jurisdiction over this new planet is unclear) claiming ownership, and already a war is brewing.
Cibola Burn provides familiar series characters, like the crew of the Rocinante, and introduces some new ones among the colonists and the corporate crew sent to subdue and evict them. The story has nearly everything this series does well. There is plenty of action, whether it’s on a ship, in space, or on the surface of a technically habitable planet that seems to be doing its best to kill everyone. There is intriguing information about the ancient exo-sapients who sent us the protomolecule, and a scary encounter with an artifact that may have been part of what killed them off more than two billion years ago.
Among the new characters, Basia is a colonist who did a terrible thing when the book opened. As the story progresses, Basia cycles through confusion, defiance, despair and ultimately honest remorse for what he did. He was a good character and I really liked him, in large part because he was also a welder and while he was rolling through that emotional journey he was also outside in a suit working. He didn’t just stare out a porthole and brood. On the other end of the continuum, Havelock starts off convinced he’s standing on the moral high ground, and has to question that assumption as his boss’s psychopathy becomes more obvious.
Elvi, one of the corporate scientists, is a good character who is saddled with an overdone girlish crush on James Holden. It is meant to be played for laughs, but there is too much of it; it felt like a very long joke for a tired old punchline.
The writing in this series is always fun; tight third-person point of view gives us windows into various people’s cynical and acerbic internal comments. That, as always, is done well here, but for the first time, writer bad habits start showing through. I understand the hand gestures that the Belters use because that is part of their language. At least four times, though, different Earthers or Martians “patted the air in a calming gesture.” This is a bad habit. Other writing tics leaked through, frequently enough that I noticed them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I started this book with the distinct feeling of having been caught by a bait-and-switch. The prologue opens with Martian ex-Marine Bobbie Draper. This made me think that Bobbie Draper would be in the book, but, silly me! No. She comes in again in the epilogue, over dinner with Christjen Avasarala. It is possible that part of my slight disappointment with Cibola Burn was the lack of Bobbie Draper. The prologue and epilogue are there to provide information about issues in forthcoming books, I’m sure, and I would have been fine with Avararala and Draper having dinner at the end… but the prologue made me aware, throughout the book, how much I missed Bobbie.
In spite of these nits, I loved the way Ilus, or New Terra, morphed into a killer hell-planet, and I enjoyed all of Holden’s interactions with Dead Detective Miller and I loved the visuals of both the underground facility Holden finds and the breathtaking rescue attempt in space. This is still the flagship space opera series, and I’m not about to stop reading.