Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in the science fiction adventure series, Expanse. It is also, in my view, a contender for best in what has become one of my favourite of all series, irrespective of genre. As always with reviews of books in a sequence, I make due warning of spoilers for what has gone before, although I do think that Cibola Burn would hold up very well as a standalone novel. It would be a shame, though, to deny yourself the pleasure of reading this corker of a series.
The floodgates have opened. The mysterious alien gate to the stars has been subdued, heralding a race to colonise the most promising of the planets, many light months from Earth but just days away thanks to this artefact. Ilus is a most attractive target – rich in metals and welcoming in climate. Royal Charter Energy (RCE) is quick off the mark, sending a mission of scientists to explore the planet and its habitats, to determine the best and safest way to extract its bounty. Unfortunately, when their vessel the Edward Israel arrives, it is to find a planet already settled and already named, New Terra. Trying to make a life on the planet are refugees from past attacks by the protomolecule which filled the pages of the previous novels, especially the assault on Ganymede. These are people with little to lose except the new ground beneath their feet and so they fight to keep it.
A shuttle from the Israel is blown up, anarchy breaks out, mass slaughter is imminent. James Holden, captain of the ‘modified’ Rocinante is selected as an unlikely peacemaker by an uneasy alliance between the home planets and the Belters. But when Holden and his small crew arrives on the planet, they are not alone. As always these days, Holden is stalked by a ghost, a being that may once have been Detective Miller, and along with this ghost’s faint memories of a past life there is a compulsion to reach out, to do what he used to, to investigate and discover what it is about New Terra that makes the protomolecule so very afraid.
Cibola Burn is very different from the previous three novels. It follows the same pattern of chapters alternating between the perspectives of different key characters but this is a far more focused novel than what has preceded it. Instead of depicting the progress of the protomolecule and charting the course of its impulse to devastate and create across the home solar system, the action now moves to one relatively small area, the planet of New Terra on the other side of the gate that caused so much trouble in the third novel Abaddon’s Gate. The protomolecule remains as enigmatic and as terrifying as ever but for now it has chosen to work with Holden and his crew to discover the identity and nature of the alien force that once used New Terra to harm the Gate and the protomolecule, long before humans ever came into existence.
Holden not only has to deal with the urgent whispers of the peculiarly reincarnated Miller, he must also cope with the rivalry on the planet between the first settlers and their scientist (and military escort) invaders, a conflict that spreads into orbit. While half of the novel follows the drama developing between the Rocinante and the Edward Israel – and this is extremely exciting! – the rest shadows Holden’s efforts to keep the peace on the planet while keeping the spooky Miller happy. Unfortunately, all of the shenanigans between the different factions has a completely unexpected side effect – the planet wakes up. Suddenly, killing one another becomes much less important than not being killed by the planet.
The descriptions of New Terra are awe inspiring. There is a strong sense of this being a wild west settlement where resourcefulness is essential for survival and death, injury, disease potentially lie in wait around every corner. This is compounded by the stress of the whole situation. Holden is on the edge while others among the scientists, soldiers and villagers have their own issues. The result is extreme tension.
Holden is more likeable than ever. He was chosen for this mission because of his celebrity (and sheer luck) but at heart he still wants nothing more than to keep his crew safe and help those less able than himself. This is a man who can’t say no, even when he is so tired he can barely stand up. Among the new characters are settler Basia Merton, a man damaged by his experience on Ganymede and all the more intriguing for it, and scientist Elvi Okoye. There is something rather irritating about Elvi for much of the novel but fortunately she is finally allowed to be herself. There are glimpses of familiar faces from previous novels, especially Bobbie and the foul-mouthed politician Avasarala. I doubt I’m alone in loving these two characters and I really hope that their roles are expanded once more in the next novel. There are some other surprises. While it’s not essential to have read what’s gone on before, if you have, you may recognise one or two people here.
Abaddon’s Gate, the third in the series, was a fine novel, packed with action, moving the story on through vital stages, but it is my least favourite of the Expanse series. I think that all through that novel I was waiting for what would happen next. In Cibola Burn it happens. This is a thoroughly exciting adventure and mystery, mixing a complex, thrilling, pageturning plot with fascinating character development. Without doubt, this is the novel I wanted next from the Expanse and it promises so much for what is to come. Caliban’s War is a hard act to follow but Cibola Burn is every bit as good, if not better.