I've said it before and I'll say it again: In my humble opinion, James S. A. Corey's Hugo-nominated and New York Times-bestselling Expanse sequence is the very best ongoing science fiction series on the market today! This is space opera on a grand scale as good as anything written by genre powerhouses like Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds.
In every installment thus far, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two authors behind this letter-filled pseudonym, have managed to raise the bar even higher. Hence, I was looking forward to reading this fourth volume and discover if Cibola Burn would be pushing the envelope even more! But sadly, it was not to be. For some reason, the authors elected to forgo the formula that made the first three books such memorable reads and tried a different approach which didn't work as well. At least as far as I'm concerned. . .
Here's the blurb:
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.
The main problem with Cibola Burn is that it appears to be some sort of interlude between the opening chapters and what will occur in subsequent installments. Previous volumes were sprawling space opera affairs that hit all the right buttons. This novel is much more limited in scope and is more of a transitional work.
The worldbuilding has always been one of my favorite aspects of this series. Unfortunately, by taking a step backward and limiting the scope of Cibola Burn, this particular facet leaves something to be desired this time around. And given how great the worldbuilding turned out to be in the first three volumes, this could be nothing but a disappointment. The politicking, so prevalent and intricately woven through the storylines in the past, is more or less absent in this novel. Or, more exactly, it takes place behind the scene as the Ilus situation escalates and is micromanaged by the powers that be. The payoff at the end is nowhere near as good as in previous installments. Even worse, after going through nearly 600 pages, the Avasarala epilogue reveals that the entire "interlude" that is Cibola Burn was meant to show that with this new frontier open to all comers, the powerful Martian space fleet, with their home planet soon to become a ghost town, will probably go to the highest bidder and might spark the first interstellar military conflict. The corporate power vs "innocent" squatters stand-off was interesting at first, but there was no way it could sustain a book of this size. Moreover, not known to take the path of least resistance, the authors occasionally went for the easy way out, which was kind of sloppy. All in all, this made for a less-than-engaging plot compared to the more far-reaching and multilayered plotlines that characterized the earlier volumes.
In the past, the stakes became higher as the tale progressed, with tension rising with each new chapter. The Expanse reached new heights with every new installment, gradually becoming a very complex science fiction tale. Which boded well for what came next, no doubt about it. Which makes me wonder, what with the series having gained such momentum, the authors decided to activate the hand-brake, so to speak, and pretty much bring everything to some sort of standstill for the duration of a novel.
What saved this book was the characterization. In that respect, at least, Cibola Burn is as good as its predecessors. Once again, do-gooder Holden is back as a POV character. Both sides of the conflict are perceived by men and women opposing one another lightyears away from their own civilization. Basia is one of the original and illegal colonists, while Elvi is one of the scientists traveling to study this new planet. Havelock, a security officer working on the ship bringing in the scientists and other people traveling to Ilus with a UN charter, is probably the most interesting protagonist in the novel. The protomolecule also has a POV of sorts which is linked to Miller's interactions with Holden. As mentioned, though the overall plot can be disappointing at times, the characterization continues to shine through.
Abaddon's Gate was paced in a way that made you beg for more, always promising yourself to read just another chapter, again and again. A veritable page-turner, that book was almost impossible to put down. On the other hand, Cibola Burn suffers from an extremely uneven pace and the rhythm does slow down and drag quite often. Our interest is piqued when Miller reveals new information about the ancient civilization which created the Ring and everything else. And yet, those sequences are few and far between, and we soon realize that the bulk of the story has to do with the conflict between the colonists and the corporation chartered to take possession of the planet.
Vast in scope and vision, the Expanse seemed destined to become one of the very best space opera series of all time. Well, sadly, Cibola Burn failed to live up to the lofty expectations generated by its predecessors. A good read in its own right, true, yet nowhere near as remarkable as the first three installments. The ending does open up the door for great things to come, but it remains to be seen if the authors can recapture the magic which made the first books so awesome.