Cibola Burn: A Literary Adventure Waiting to be Embraced

Some refreshing sci-fi ideas were neatly explored in the first three books of The Expanse series. Readers are spoiled with all sorts of fascinating themes, from the large-scale political intrigue in the Milky Way galaxy and weaponized alien molecules to the formation of wormholes and space-based religion. Cibola Burn, the fourth in the series, takes the story further away beyond the galaxy and brings along with it a change of focus.

The core premise of Cibola Burn is not exactly a brand-new idea: humans take on space exploration through an interstellar portal and try to build a stable colony on a new planet. While the theme is old-fashioned in the genre, the storyline – driven by complex interactions among the characters and realistic exposition – has set the book apart from many similar others.

Even the characters are not new. Cibola Burn puts some minor characters in the previous books the center stage and ties everything together neatly. The viewpoints used for storytelling include:

  • Dimitri Havelock: head of security on the research ship Edward Israel orbiting the New Terra, a newly discovered planet mentioned in Abaddon’s Gate. Havelock used to be Detective Miller’s partner in the series’ first novel. Edward Israel is visiting New Terra on behalf of Royal Charter Energy (RCE).
  • Basia Merton: a settler on New Terra. The character also makes an appearance in Caliban’s War. Merton isn’t overly happy with the presence of Edward Israel on New Terra, as much as everybody on the ship despises the idea of illegal settlers.
  • Eli Okoye: one scientist from Edward Israel is tasked with documenting the New Terra environment and life forms.
  • James Holden: and of course, the book puts Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante at the forefront of the action. By now, Captain Holden has become arguably the most popular person in the entire galaxy thanks to his adventures chronicled in the previous three books (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate)
Now that there is a quick portal to reach new frontiers, people take their chances to escape whatever difficult situations they have and rebuild a brand-new world for themselves elsewhere. New Terra appears to be an ideal home with an abundance of lithium ore and a habitable atmosphere. It gives hope for a better life to the otherwise planet-less homeless settlers. To make things complicated for everyone, they have granted the RCE the legal rights to develop and explore the planet, angering the corporation with the settlers lurking around.

Things start with a literal bang in Cibola Burn. A rebellious group of settlers decided to detonate a landing pad supposedly used for a shuttle from Edward Israel. Basia Merton gets himself involved in the incident. The settlers arrived at New Terra first, but a subsequent series of events ends up making them illegal immigrants on the planet. Officers on Edward Israel, as expected, do not take the settlers’ gestures lightly. Unrest and violence are erupting on New Terra.

Amidst the tension, comes Captain James Holden and his crew aboard the Rocinante. Holden has always been the ideal man for such a job, proven by his track record as a peacekeeper during challenging political turmoil in the past. The man has what it takes to do what is right, even if the decisions contradict his own interests. Each time an interplanetary conflict arises, there is no better man to ease the tension than Captain Holden. Always at the ready around him on the Rocinante are XO Naomi Nagata, pilot Alex Kamal, and mechanic Amos Burton. The officially deceased Detective Miller comes back as a ghost, haunting the captain with gibberish talking.

Captain Holden has a simple mission: the UN has requested him to act as the neutral party standing between RCE and settlers on New Terra. But as always, “simple” is a gross understatement of his job description.

If a planet looks too good to be true, it probably is. The conflict that puts the RCE against the settlers doesn’t even scratch the surface of the real danger. New Terra has not always been an uninhabited world. Ruins of the ancient world are scattered all around the planet, believed to be evidence of an alien civilization from billions of years ago. The remnants are not mere structures, but living organisms in the form of animal/machine hybrids. Some are regaining consciousness. There are indications to suggest that proto molecule might actually originate from New Terra as well.

Although Captain Holden likely comes ready to deal with murderous officers and acts of terrorism perpetrated by colonists, he certainly isn’t all-prepared to face deadly alien species powerful enough to annihilate human presence on the planet. Miller’s apparitions and knowledge about everything related to protomolecule will be Holden’s indispensable asset in tackling challenges of the unknown.

We think Cibola Burn is another significant entry point for readers new to The Expanse. Set in a new world with fresh (but not entirely new) characters and new exciting adventures, the fast-paced storytelling and action sequences prove to be true page-turners, and each character still has a chance to shine. Political intricacy and armed conflicts remain the main topics, but everything feels fresh thanks to the new location, more character developments, and certainly the aliens.

Have you read Cibola Burn? Do you enjoy the major shift of focus from the Milky Way galaxy to New Terra? We’d love to hear from you.

Other things you might want to know:

Book to accompany Cibola Burn:

The Vital Abyss (2015) by James A. S. Corey. At 74 pages long, The Vital Abyss is a novella rather than a stand-alone novel. It is also part of The Expanse series, although not in the main storyline. Events of the book take place between Leviathan Wakes to Cibola Burn.

Is the book appropriate for children?

Cibola Burn is neither a children’s book nor appropriate for readers under 16. There is a decent amount of explicit language throughout the story, added with some intense violence.

Has the book received any award?

Cibola Burn was nominated for the 2015 Locus Award for the Best Sci-Fi category and the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Sci-Fi.

Check out other articles by month: