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Book Review: Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

The first settlement on another planet turns into a frontier war between squatters and a big company.


Cibola Burn

Orbit, 2014, 583 pages



Enter a new frontier.

An empty apartment, a missing family, that's creepy. But this is like finding a military base with no one on it. Fighters and tanks idling on the runway with no drivers. This is bad juju. Something wrong happened here. What you should do is tell everyone to leave.

The gates have opened the way to a thousand new worlds and the rush to colonize has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity's home planets. Ilus, 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. The struggle on Ilus threatens to spread all the way back to Earth.

James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the midst 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 civilization that once stood on this land is gone. And that something killed it.




James Holden is back, still trying to do the right thing in a shitty universe. Cibola Burn is the fourth book in the Expanse series. At the end of the third book, Abaddon's Gate, humanity discovered ancient alien wormholes that let them spread out across the galaxy. Humans being human, an immediate land rush has resulted in people fleeing Earth and Mars and the Belt for new frontiers.

So naturally, the very first world that was discovered, creatively named "New Terra," was duly chartered for scientific exploration and settlement by Royal Charter Energy. Except when the RCE colony ship arrives, they find a bunch of belters have already set up their own hardscrabble colony.

There's like a million planets out there. They have an entire uninhabited planet to share here. So you'd think they could make some space for each other. But nope, it immediately turns into a guerrilla war, and neither side is particularly in the right, and both of them immediately start playing dirty while blaming the other guys.


"What happened?" she asked.
"The landing pad blew up."
"Oh," she said. And then, "do they do that?"
"No. No, they really don't."


So James Holden, captain of the Martian warship the Rocinante, and protagonist of the last three books, is sent by the foul-mouthed head of the UN, Chrisjen Avasarala, from the second book, to go sort this out. His stated mission is to settle things down and get the two groups of colonists to make nice and stop shooting. Of course Avasarala has ulterior motives, and of course Holden knows he's being set up to fail, but goes anyway because that's just the kind of guy he is.

For being the book in which the Expanse series expands to an interstellar scale, Cibola Burn feels more constrained than the previous books — it's basically a planetary frontier novel, with multiple factions at each other's throats, good people and bad people among them, and the protagonists caught in the middle. This book also feel a little bit like Firefly, complete with Whedonesque one-liners.


"Right," Holden said. "No coffee. This is a terrible, terrible planet."


Holden is the would-be sheriff. Amos is his cheerfully violent ship's mechanic. The ship's engineer is his lover, and he has Alex along still, as his pilot in orbit while he's on the ground contending with a psychopathic company man in charge of security, super-poisonous slugs, and alien machinery that's waking up and causing planetary-scale natural disasters.

Holden is now haunted by Miller, the dead detective from book one whose "ghost" is an artifact of the alien protomolecule. It's the aliens in the background - the aliens who built this vast warp-gate networked empire billions of years ago and then just disappeared - who seem to be the Big Reveal this series is building up to. Some of their toys left lying around play a part here, but so far, humanity is stumbling out into what appears to be a galaxy that was left idling with the keys in the ignition.

While not brilliant, and probably not something I would nominate for a Hugo, the Expanse books continue to be good classic space opera with a touch of modernity, and I continue to recommend the series.

Rating: 7/10.



Also by James S.A. Corey: My reviews of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, and Abaddon's Gate.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, james s.a. corey, reviews, science fiction
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