Cibola Burn by James S A Corey
I described the previous book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate, as a pivot point in the series and book number 4, Cibola Burn, does seem like it’s moving the series in a new direction, taking place for the first time almost entirely outside our own Solar System. Unfortunately, the pivot in setting doesn’t necessarily equate a pivot in plotting, which is beginning to feel a little formulaic.
Not long after the opening of the gate to a host of other star systems, a group of refugees from Ganymede slipped through without official permission and settled on a new planet in a new system. Called New Terra by the officials and Ilus by the locals, the new planet is a seemingly ideal place to build a new human civilisation, although the group contains no scientists who can truly understand the risk. The planet is rich in natural resources and so the UN send a ship to claim the planet, much to the chagrin of the locals who launch a terrorist attack as it lands. Basia Merton, last seen in Caliban’s War, is one of these terrorists but immediately regrets his actions and seeks to make amends. Elvi Okoye is a highly talented biologists sent by the UN to study the planet who survives the attack but finds herself caught up in the escalating conflict between the Ilus locals and the UN sanctioned forces stationed there. Dmitri Havelock, Miller’s partner on Ceres from all the way back in Leviathan Wakes, is in charge of security on the UN ship hanging in orbit, with the conflict not simply being confined to the atmosphere. Finally, once again James Holden joins the fray, sent as a negotiator by Avasarala and try to stop the conflict from boiling over, all while the threat of the alien planet and the remains of those who once lived there looms in the background.
The core conflict between the security forces and the locals on Ilus isn’t particularly interesting; we already had the authority figure going mad with power storyline in the last book. The core characters are decent, but this element of the story is dragged out for far too long. Things pick up considerably when the grander elements involving the dead protomolecule-creating civilisation show up and Cibola Burn begins to achieve a grandeur the series hasn’t really seen as much as it should. Cibola Burn is simply too long, dragging out a relatively simple premise for far longer than it really needs. The second half is a major improvement, with a sudden massive event shifting focus entirely into something far more interesting; it just takes too long to get to this point.
The characterisation is good in places; Holden and his team are as lovable as ever and I liked the character of Elvi Okoye, the naive young scientist with a massive crush on Holden. Havelock, a character I rather liked in Leviathan Wakes, settles into familiar ground as a security officer forced into an impossible position, something the series has done before. Merton never really comes into his own as a man driven by grief to make a terrible mistake. I liked all of these characters, but there’s none who can rival being anywhere near as interesting as characters like Bobbie and Avasarala from Caliban’s War.
This is a very negative reading review, but I did actually enjoy Cibola Burn quite a lot. Abraham and Franck are good enough writers that they can carry even a lacklustre story into something entertaining, but this was not the return to form for the series that I had hoped it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it enough to keep going, but I’d be lying if I said that my enthusiasm for The Expanse is as great as it was.