Cibola Burn (The Expanse #4), by James S. A. Corey — a book review

I’m watching Season 5 of the Amazon series The Expanse as the episodes drop, which means I’m probably already into the plot of the novel published after this one, Nemesis Games. It doesn’t matter. Season 4 covered a lot of what happens in Cibola Burn, and I never felt that watching the streaming series before reading the book lessened my enjoyment of this novel one iota.

Amazon has renewed The Expanse for a sixth and final season. There are already eight books in the written series, with a ninth (and final?) slated for publication in October of this year. I believe it would be impossible for the show to stuff the plots of three or four novels into one season, so I’m not sure how they’re going to pull it off. I do know that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who share the pen name James S. A. Corey) are involved in the production of the series, so I expect that the ending will at least represent their brand.

I’m bummed that the Amazon series is ending. But, I still have five novels to read. I won’t be saying goodbye to the crew of the Rocinante for several years at the leisurely rate I’m reading the books. While I love the show, it’s difficult to do better than the reading experience of a well-written story.

As with any adaptation, there are differences between the source material and the screen product. Some of the material for Season 4 of the streaming series came from the fifth novel or various novellas that I haven’t read yet, so I can’t really comment on the differences there. However, I’ll point out the few major changes I noticed as I go along.

By the time the reader arrives at Cibola Burn, they’ve already experienced a lot in the universe of The Expanse. At the conclusion of Abaddon’s Gate, our solar system was suddenly linked to thousands of other worlds through use of the Ring.

What is the Ring, you ask?

Without recounting the plots of the previous three novels, I’ll just say that the Ring is a lot like a Stargate (I’ve started watching Stargate SG-1 recently). It is a fictional construct, like warp engines and hyperspace drives, that provides a workaround to the very real issue of the mindboggling size of the universe. In a fictional milieu where faster-than-light starships do not exist, we were otherwise limited to our own backyard—our solar system. That served the story to this point, which was all about our local issues, and how humans had divided themselves into three distinct factions: Earthers, Belters, and Martians. But, the convenient appearance of the Ring, which was a natural outgrowth of our original story about the alien protomolecule that fueled the first three novels, changes things a lot.

This is one of those pivotal historic moments, like the invention of the steam engine or the airplane. Nothing that happens after will ever be the same.

Rather than continuing to boggle the mind with the thousands of potential liveable worlds that humans just gained access to, the writers decided to focus on only one: Ilus.

Because I am me, I immediately thought about the world Ilos in the richly imagined Mass Effect video game franchise. Both names have their origins in Greek mythology, I believe, so I’m not suggesting that James S. A. Corey took some of their inspiration from a video game. I’m not saying they didn’t either. Mass Effect was quite derivative of the science fiction that came before it, and the video game itself has continued to influence the science fiction that came after. Maybe I’m just looking for some common ground between two properties I happen to enjoy. Who can say?

Here’s the set-up. The United Nations, Martian and Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) governments have, for the time being, restricted exploration beyond the Ring to one corporate scientific and survey mission to the planet Ilus, which appears to be the closest and least-hostile of the new worlds discovered. Royal Charter Energy is the corporation that has the legal right to explore Ilus. This is complicated by a renegade group of Belters and other refugees who decide to colonize the planet first, staking their claim to its resources. The problem is compounded, in the nature of this sort of story, by an act of terrorism committed by the original colonists that goes awry and kills a bunch of RCE employees and UN personnel, including the provisional governor who was on board.

A tense situation. The reader may have originally been inclined to take the side of the colonists, who were, in fact, there first, however illegally. But, then that would mean siding with terrorists. The two-headed author takes an even-handed approach to the story. It’s not good guys versus bad guys, although there are some who might be characterized as such on both sides. It’s an exciting powder-keg of a situation.

Avasarala decides to send James Holden and the Rocinante to mediate the dispute. This makes some sort of sense, because Holden has proven that he is not under the control of any corporate or government entity, which is best exemplified by his melting pot crew and his tendency to speak the truths no one wants to hear. However, in the course of three novels, Holden’s appearance seems to be a prelude to further trouble and additional death and destruction. Without telling you exactly what happens in this novel, let me assure you that it becomes more than merely legal wrangling over land rights. Things that seem all-important at the beginning of the novel seem much less so at the end. It’s a matter of scale and circumstance.

As with the other novels, this story is told in third-person-limited point of view, with each chapter representing the viewpoint of a particular character. The major viewpoint characters are as follows.

Basia Merton: a refugee from Ganymede (see previous novels) who is actually the colonist who triggers the terrorist act that sets off the action of the novel, although he’s really not a bad guy. On the Amazon series, Basia’s wife was more a viewpoint character than her husband. I’ll explain why shortly.

Elvi Okoye: a scientist from the UN team sent on the RCE ship. Also not a bad guy. She becomes the voice of science and reason as the plot progresses, as the story moves beyond its original plot to one of survival in a hostile environment.

James Holden: of course. Holden is an independent ship captain archetype cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds and Han Solo. He is also still in communication with Miller, the private investigator who was killed by the protomolecule in a previous book and yet lives on in some sort of science-fantasy way. Miller is a minor viewpoint character as well. Holden and Miller manage to make the situation on Ilus worse before it gets better.

Dmitri Havelock: Miller’s old partner on Ceres who is now the deputy security chief for the UN mission. He never leaves the RCE ship, the Edward Israel, during the entire novel. Later in the story, he ends up with a certain Rocinante first mate as his prisoner and has to put down a mutiny on board the ship while the powerless ships in orbit are slowly crashing into the atmosphere.

As far as I can tell, Havelock doesn’t exist in the Amazon series at all. Naomi Ngata, Holden’s first mate and love interest, tries and fails to adapt to Ilus’ gravity well during the series, giving her more time on the surface instead of only in orbit. The entire Havelock storyline is pushed aside to concentrate on the planetside Ilus story, as well as to shoehorn in character threads for Bobbie Draper, Avasarala, Ashford, Drummer and Marco Inaros that don’t really appear in the novel. Basia Merton becomes a prisoner in orbit, which is why his wife played a more major role in the streaming series.

The Big Bad in both the novel and television series is RCE security chief Adolphus Murtry. Now, he is a bad guy, although I can’t help but admire his tenacity and loyalty to his employers.

Cibola Burn is more great fun in the universe of The Expanse. It has elements of hard science fiction, if that’s your thing, but it remains science-fantasy, a genre that includes such properties, in my opinion, as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Firefly. That’s my thing, which is probably why I enjoyed this so much.

Firewater’s I’m-the-Guy-Here-with-the-Most-Guns Report Card: A

I’ve read reviews that say this novel was the weakest of the series. I respectfully disagree. However, that makes me look forward to the rest of the series even more.

2 thoughts on “Cibola Burn (The Expanse #4), by James S. A. Corey — a book review

  1. Confession time 😀 I am one of those people who think this is a somewhat weak offering in the series, but in the sense that it’s a 4,75 stars instead of the 5 for the other books, which means that I still consider it an amazing part of the series, only a tiny bit lagging in some sections. Since you are already watching the new season, you know what to expect from the next volume, but I can tell you that what can be see on screen will not diminish your enjoyment of the book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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