Review: “Cibola Burn,” James S.A. Corey

Rating: 5 out of 5

James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse” series is such an amazing science fiction tale (with a touch of horror). Cibola Burn (The Expanse, 4) makes it clear that each of these books is just as good as the previous, and that’s a hard thing to pull off.

When we left off at the end of Abaddon’s Gate, the gates had opened up and made more than a thousand habitable worlds available to humanity. On one of these planets, colonists have cobbled together a settlement (they call the planet Ilus) and are mining valuable minerals. The company Royal Charter Energy, however, received a charter from the UN granting them ownership of the planet. They’ve sent a ship full of scientists to start studying the planet (which they call New Terra). Basia Merton has been convinced by some of his fellow colonists to blow up the landing pad that RCE needs in order to send their scientists down to the planet. Unfortunately, the drop shuttle gets caught in the explosion and some of the scientists die, while others are injured. Immediately the colonists and RCE are set against each other, and the psychotic head of security for the RCE vessel (Adolphus Murtry) is determined that his side will win at any cost. Havelock, Miller’s one-time partner, is working security on the RCE vessel, and the UN sends Captain Holden to Ilus to mediate some sort of solution to the dispute. As if this weren’t bad enough, as soon as Holden’s ship arrives, defunct alien machinery on the planet starts to come alive–and some of it is quite dangerous. Even Miller’s ghost has followed Holden to Ilus, and he too wants Holden’s help.

The mystery of Ilus is fascinating. A geologist on the RCE mission feels like he has nothing to do because, in his words, the planet was “machined.” It was designed, and the regularly-spaced moons around it are clearly meant to serve some function as well. The first encounter with anything alien was the protomolecule and the horror show it made of Eros. The second was the Ring and the station Holden discovered on the other side. Now we get to see an actual planet that the aliens inhabited, complete with alien ruins. There are some organisms there–flora and fauna–and some of them are eerily dangerous. The alien equipment is also quite capable of causing damage as it “wakes up.” Miller is trying to figure out what happened to the aliens, and pushes Holden to look into that when Holden really just wants to keep people alive.

There are some great characters on every side in this dispute. Elvi, a biologist, is trying to study the native lifeforms, but gets roped into doing entirely more urgent things (she also has a serious crush on Holden). Fayez, the geologist, is doing his best to feel relevant. Havelock is left up on the RCE vessel and ends up training a “militia”–yeah, that doesn’t go as planned. Basia is hauled off to the Rocinante as a prisoner, which is really Holden’s attempt to keep him from getting killed by Murtry. Absolutely no one wants to listen to Holden, particularly Murtry.

Don’t worry, there’s still plenty going on at the ships–the Rocinante (Holden’s ship), the RCE vessel, and the Barbapiccola (the ship that transported the colonists and is supposed to take their ore to sale). Between Havelock’s militia, Murtry’s orders, and Holden’s people, there are plenty of unfortunate things happening up there. And when enough alien equipment wakes up to put the ships’ reactors offline, their orbits start to decay. The amount of stuff going wrong is epic, and it makes for a tense, tightly-plotted story.

I also liked the fact that there’s a little bit of nudging at the idea that these new worlds are going to have a huge impact on the economic and political landscapes that humans rely on. I can’t wait to read book five and see where that goes!

It was astounding, Bobbie thought, how quickly humanity could go from What unimaginable intelligence fashioned these soul-wrenching wonders? to Well, since they’re not here, can I have their stuff?

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