Cibola Burn – James S. A. Corey

cibola burnI approached this new book in my favorite space-opera series with a mix of excitement and apprehension: no need to explain the former, of course, but the latter came from the fear that after a compelling trilogy the authors might somehow slacken their pace. So it’s with extreme satisfaction that I can now say that Cibola Burn maintains the same level of excellence of its predecessors and even manages to surpass them – not a mean feat, indeed.

The narrative thread of the alien protomolecule, that was the principal device in the first three books in the series, now takes second place in favor of a more human focus: after opening a gate near Uranus, one that led toward uncountable habitable worlds, the alien construct almost fades in the background of humanity’s expansionist struggle.  A ship of refugees from Ganymede lands on Earth-like Ilus, establishing a colony and starting mining operations on the planet’s rich lithium deposits. The major corporations also send a scientific mission that is in truth the attempt at a foothold on the new world, provoking the colonists’ dramatic reaction. The UN and OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) decide to send Holden and the Rocinante’s crew as mediators before the situation escalates beyond control. The problem is, the planet itself also becomes a player, and soon enough all hell breaks loose.

In the first trilogy the social and political tension between older and more established power bases and the colonies of the Asteroid did play a major role, with the almost-racial slur attached to being a Belter – different in body, thinner and elongated due to life in microgravity; and different in language, an almost incomprehensible dialect concocted from many Earth dialects – creating new kinds of chasm among humans.

Here that tension comes to the fore in a most dramatic way.  When the RCE (Royal Charter Energy) mission lands on Ilus, the confrontation between them and the Belter colonists goes beyond the struggle for the rights to exploit the planet’s resources and turns into a racial war: so far from civilized space, where there are no laws and no one to enforce them, only the strongest, most determined and – of course – more ruthless can hold sway.   One of the more chilling segments of the book is the one where the RCE ship’s technicians start training in a sort of militia that keeps ready in case of insurrection from the despised Belter members of the crew.  The “us and them” mentality, the growing suspicions, the plans for wanton destruction as a means to annihilate the “enemy”,  all add to an already explosive mix.

This power keg he’s been sent to defuse acts on Holden’s behavior in an unexpected and interesting way: until now, we’ve seen him as a man with a strong moral compass and willing to go out of his way to do what he perceives as right. Yet the situation on Ilus is all but clean-cut, and the need to deal with many shades of gray and conflicting sympathies tests Holden’s mettle in more ways than one.  I must admit that this new uncertainty made him a more sympathetic character in my eyes: the larger-than-life aura that past events created around him, somehow obscured the real nature of the man. Here, tested by warring loyalties, the drives of his conscience and several life-threatening circumstances, the real person comes through more clearly, and he becomes far more likable than he appeared in the past.

On the other hand, Murtry – his main opponent and RCE’s chief of security, is the kind of villain everyone loves to hate: a man with a single focus, one who doesn’t care about collateral damage as long as the job gets done. I enjoyed this part of his character and the way he didn’t change even when the situation on Ilus hit him as hard as anyone else – to do otherwise would have represented a betrayal of his psychological makeup, IMHO, so I appreciated this choice. What I didn’t like were the shades of mustache-twirling that appeared now and then: for me they detracted from the general effect, even though they were not enough to ruin a well-thought-out personality.

Speaking of characters, the whole crew of the Rocinante is put through the grinder here, not just Holden: this small, tightly-knit group has always been the main driving force of the story, so it’s interesting to see them separated by the circumstances, having to rely on other people and therefore tested as individuals rather than the family they have grown into. It’s not just a fascinating look at their personalities, it’s also a great narrative choice that keeps raising already hight stakes.  Yes, because the authors here spared no punches: there were several instances where I literally cried out in dismay at the new dangers the characters were forced to face.  The main strength of the novel, and its main page-turning impulse, come exactly from this terrifying escalation that plays out as entirely believable – both in storytelling and in pacing – and leads you to the conclusion through a breathless chain of events.

And last but not least, the final chapter opens a totally new scenario, one that made me understand that this book – good as it was – was just laying the ground for more, much more.  On one side I was happy to see again Bobbie Draper and Crisjen Avarasala, two of my favorite characters from previous novels, on the other, the conversation between them and Avarasala’s words about the real motivation for sending Holden to Ilus changed the rules of the game in a major way. What awaits the readers in the next installments is an unexpected scenario that promises more trouble than whatever the protomolecule might have generated.

If you have not approached The Expanse until now, I urge you to do that: it’s rare to find a series that manages to reinvent itself with each new book, and rarer still to find one that knows how to keep storytelling fresh and engrossing. Here you will find all this, and more.

My Rating: 9/10

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