LitStack Review: Cibola Burn by James S. A. Corey

by Sharon Browning
Cibola BurnCibola Burn
James S. A. Corey
Release Date:  June 17, 2014
ISBN 978-0-316-21762-0

Cibola is the name of one of the Seven mythical Cities of Gold that launched a share of the expeditions to North America in the 16th century.  Yet when famed conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado finally reached Cibola in 1540, he discovered no gold; the glittering seen from afar and assumed to be treasure was instead flakes of mica embedded in the adobe pueblos that caught the light of the setting sun.  A beautiful hint at something that ultimately held no appreciable value.

As with the other titles in the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (actually, the author duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), of which Cibola Burn is the fourth of nine announced installments, the title lends an eerie prescience to the story to come, but is devoid of any real explication.  (The other released titles in the series are Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.)

It’s a wonderful convention for this series.

Heck, it’s a wonderful series.

(Be forewarned:  reading further will bring up major spoilers for those who have not yet started this series; no matter how hard a reviewer may try, when you get this deep into a series, you can’t talk about much without blowing the cover on something that came earlier so I’m not even going to try.  Suffice it to say, if you haven’t read up to this point yet in the series, read no further except this:  what the heck are you waiting for?)

After a war between worlds in our solar system which is suddenly suspended due to the infiltration of an ancient alien proto-virus that takes organic material and turns it into…. other things; after the planet Venus has been utilized to be both a prison and an incubation chamber for that marooned virus; and after that very same virus has inexplicably jettisoned itself as what – a machine?  a growth? a feat of re-engineering? – that manifests as a gateway ring outside the orbit of Uranus (a ring that is both inviting and highly detrimental) into the virus’s universe of origin – which now appears to be void of any advanced life forms – mankind once again finds itself with the opportunity for sudden, vast, joyous expansion.

And, since this is mankind, the very first habitable planet on the other side of the Ring is not only the site of the first human colony outside of our solar system, but it’s also almost immediately mired in territorial disputes, assumptive corporate entitlement, racially fueled strife, military heavy-handedness and vigilante “justice” – the immediate and inevitable David versus Goliath scenario that seems to plague mankind’s “grab and defend” mentality when it comes to exploration.

Enter James Holden and the intrepid crew of the Rocinante.  Since their initial foray into the Ring – and Holden’s uncovering of how to use the Ring without provoking its millions-of-years old defenses (with the help of the now-spectral Detective Miller) – they had been working as a placid escort of OPA ships to what is now known as Medina Station (formerly the huge warship Behemoth), ensconced at the lip of the gateway to the other worlds.  But when conflicts arise between the squatter settlement of First Landing on the planet Ilus (or New Terra, depending on who is doing the talking) and the crew of corporation Royal Charter Energy’s ship the Edward Israel, Holden is called in as mediator.  The settlers, mainly Martians and Belters, who have scratched out a primitive living thus far and hope to gain an economic foothold through the mining of the surprisingly rich veins of lithium discovered just below the planet’s surface, are understandably threatened when the corporate ship arrives, armed with an official UN charter, laying claim to the planet and all of its resources – including the tons of ore that the miners were readying to be loaded onto a merchant ship, the ore that would buy them the food, medicine and supplies they need in order to survive.

It is stated that Holden will be viewed as an impartial mediator, and his transparency is certainly well known – his inability to be subtle is almost mythic.  Holden himself believes he has been assigned this task because it’s a no-win situation and he is filling the role as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.  And indeed, things do not go well, especially seeing that the first Royal Charter Energy shuttle to the planet’s surface is sabotaged before it can even land.  Tensions are high, violence escalates, and key figures in the fight on both sides cling stubbornly to their own didactic views, even when dangers arise from the millennia-old alien civilization as it starts to “awaken” – dangers that dwarf the settlement and the RCE both, and threaten all who attempt to voyage through the Ring into the beckoning, “new” territories.

How is James Holden and crew going to make it through this one?

It is marvelous how the duo that is James S. A. Corey continue to expand the scope and the drama that is the Expanse series, while keeping consistent with what has been built on the books that came before.  Characters that appeared in earlier volumes, both as key players and as bit parts, reappear in Cibola Burn, to great effect.  Detective Miller plays a major role in this book, much as he did in Abaddon’s Gate, and we have ties to former POV characters such as Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper.  But there are other very effective ties to lesser characters:  both Dimitri Havelock, Miller’s former partner on Ceres Station, and Basia Merton, the father of one of the children abducted in Caliban’s War, play major roles in Cibola Burn.  With lesser talent, the inclusion of these characters would have felt coerced but author Corey handles them in such a deft manner and with such fluid reasoning that we have no reason to question their being part of the continuing story.

The philosophical, religious and moral musing of Abaddon’s Gate are absent on Cibola Burn, but the underlying questions still exist in the actions of the settlers, the efforts of the scientists who want to preserve as much of Ilus as possible in a pristine environment, and the threat of hardnosed militia who stick perversely to duty in the face of human need.  The stage is much smaller in this book, with virtually all of the action taking place on a single planet rather than flung across a solar system or between galaxies, but the impact is definitely not muted.  Actually, the drawing in of the focus makes the consequences of what happens even more menacing, and more dire beyond the gridlock between the settlers and the RCE, for what happens on Ilus is just the first step in a whole new salvo of actions that will reverberate, no doubt, in the next book, Nemesis Games (slated to be released in June of 2015).

I’ve read a lot of trilogies and multi-book series in my literary lifetime, and I can unequivocally say that the Expanse – even though we’re not even quite halfway through the announced nine-book set – is by far the best science fiction series in my experience, very possibly even the best series across all genres.  Each book is a fantastic stand-alone adventure, and taken as a whole they are huge in scope and intimate in execution.  The characters – every one of them – are deep and yet not cloying; there are no caricatures in this lexicon. You really care about each and every person – creature – with whom you come into contact.  I don’t often use the term “tour de force”, but I gladly do so here.

I have no idea where the Expanse is going to go next, but I have no doubt that it will be fantastic.  Next June can’t come quickly enough.

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