Some problems require diplomacy. Others require Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante.
Two years after the ring has opened up Earth, Mars, and the Belt to a whole new universe of planets, a dispute arises on a newly discovered habitable planet between illegal settlers and the corporation claiming to rightfully own it. The diplomatic powers that be claim that there’s only one man who can help solve the dispute without too much bloodshed. “Everyone hates him equally, so we can argue he’s impartial. He’s got ties to you, Mars, me. He’s a fucking awful choice for a diplomatic mission, so it makes him perfect.”
Really, it’s not every protagonist who can be described like that and still somehow shine. (Thank you, Avarasala!)
Cibola Burn is the fourth book in the thrilling space opera The Expanse series that kicked off with Leviathan Wakes, and will be coming to our television screens sometime next year. I’ve recommended these books to my dad, to my friends, and to complete strangers. I think Caliban’s War (book 2) is one of the best space operas I’ve read, with characters I can’t wait to see again. Cibola Burn may not be quite as good, but it’s a very high bar the authors have set for themselves, and this book is thoroughly exciting, enjoyable, and surprising.
I recently mentioned in a review I was becoming bored with generic Epic Fantasy. Really the truth is I’m bored with things that play it safe. At this point, the Expanse books could very easily play it safe but Cibola Burn rides into town to prove it has no desire to do so.
Early on in the book, we meet two characters who seem to represent the extreme positions of the settlers and the corporation. You can imagine these two men sparring back and forth, with violence and verbs all the way to the end of the book – and then one of the characters shoots the other in the face. Just like that, everything’s changed. It’s a pretty brilliant moment of storytelling, and shows that Corey (the joint pseudonym of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank) has plenty of tricks up their sleeves, and no time for Filler.
The authors have said they liked to play with SF subgenres – Leviathan Wakes was their noir, Abaddon’s Gate was their haunted house tale, etc. If that’s the case, Cibola Burn is their western – attempting to display not only the difficulty of surviving in the wilderness, but the volatile frontier justice that comes with settling a new territory.
In addition to Holden, we do get viewpoints from other characters – some of them familiar: Havelock, a security agent, who was Miller’s partner on Ceres Station; Basa, who suffered the loss of his son back on Ganymede and is now a refugee who has settled on the planet (and was a friend of Prax’s); and Elvi, one of the scientists who arrived to research the new world. The authors expertly position these characters throughout the novel, moving them like dynamite-made chess pieces sitting on a powder keg tabletop. (Sadly, Avarasala’s time is limited (there can never be too much Avarasala), but there’s indications she and Bobbie Draper feature more prominently in the next few books.) By the end of the book, all of the supporting cast gets to really shine – but I found the dichotomy and humanity of Havelock and Basa startlingly hopeful.
Eric Davies has the ill-fortune to come into a series midway, take the place of a beloved narrator as the audio rights switch from one company to another. I’ll be honest and say I wish Hachette had been able to get Jefferson Mays back (I don’t know if they tried – maybe they did), who narrated the first three Expanse books.
That said, Davies does pretty well. His Detective Miller sounds a lot more alien than Miller did in the last book, which on one hand makes sense, and on the other hand – is pretty distracting. Initially, his delivery of Holden made it sound like our hero had just walked off of the set of the next Expendables movie. There are some lines where he confuses which character is speaking (Holden’s voice with Elvi’s lines, or Murtry’s voice with Havelock’s lines). That said, once I got accustomed to the different cadence Davies employed it worked fine – in no small part because the set-up Corey has given us is so full of tension, you just have to keep going chapter after chapter to see what happens next.
If you’re a fan of space opera and you’ve missed out on the Expanse thus far, now’s the time to jump in. I’m looking forward to sharing many, many more coffees with the Rocinante and her crew, both on TV, and in the books.
Special thanks to Hachette Audio for providing me with a review copy of this audiobook.