Cibola Burn is one of my favorite science fiction books of all time. It’s such a powerful book, particularly thanks to the third act that profoundly changes the future of the series as a whole. It manages to pull together powerful themes, an exciting plot that feels like a blockbuster movie and is packed full of revelations that shock, astound, and define all of the sequels that follow it. It is a strong contender for my favorite book in The Expanse, and if you haven’t read it you are truly missing out.
The plot of Cibola is simultaneously quiet and loud. Humanity has opened a portal to infinite new worlds to explore. With a whole galaxy and hundreds of planets at their disposal, humans are setting out in search of new lives, no longer immediately confined to the dead rocks they have been attempting to bring to life. Immediately, the reader is thrown into the lives of refugees who have built their homes in a new world, Ilus. They are scraping a living out on the surface of this new alien world that is inconceivably rich in the rare metal, lithium.
This new venture, a way to take back what the settlers feel was owed to them, and the second-largest breadbasket in the system is immediately threatened by the Royal Charter Energy. RCE is a company that has been awarded the rights to the planet by the powers that be and named it New Terra. This kicks off a small but intense conflict between the settlers and scientists/security forces that are trying to survey the planet. Things get violent almost immediately and it is determined that an outsider must be brought in to mediate the conflict. Enter Holden and his crew.
If there is one thing that The Expanse does incredibly well, it’s storytelling and world-building through the characters. There are not a whole lot of places where the reader is forced to swallow a large amount of information in order to catch them up to the situation. Pieces of the world and the overarching story are drawn out of the characters’ conversations with each other, whether they are casual or life-threatening circumstances. Cibola Burn continues this tradition by introducing one new character to the book and repurposing two very small characters from previous books. In particular, these characters highlight three different aspects of the solar system as it stands after the revelations of Abaddon’s Gate. The need to provide shelter and livelihood to the belters affected by the destruction of Ganymede; the importance of scientific discovery and the need to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances; the constant presence of security personnel and the recruitment of civilians into the role. The Corey duo performs an incredible feat by having all three of these ideas smash together, without either of them really taking priority and connecting them to the looming threat Holden is pursuing.
One of the best elements of Cibola is the way it plays a game for huge stakes on a tiny stage. The conflict of this book is one of the most personal and human of the entire Expanse, boiling down to about a hundred people violently arguing over property lines. However, the result of the conflict will define the story of the entire rest of the series. It places a huge burden and pressure on the cast which shows through in their various stories. The foil of micro and macro storytelling makes both pieces more powerful as they play off one another. It also builds a launching point for the rest of The Expanse. Until Cibola, the series has focused on humanity trying to tread water and survive inside a closed system. Cibola is the popping of the cork and greatly increases the scope of the storytelling.
The other thing that Cibola does wonderfully well is revel in the idea of discovery and build tension. You will be glued to every single page as you pine for the next piece of the puzzle. At the same time, you will be crushed by anxiety as everything feels like it can go to shit in the blink of an eye. The way Corey plays with the reader’s expectations is poetic and the payoff at the end of the book is enormous. It is just a fulfilling book to read on every single front.
Cibola Burn on rereading still feels filled with purpose and direction. It functions well as the transition from the first three books to the rest of the series while providing a punchy story of its own. The characters are great, the tension is high and it foreshadows a lot of the high tension wire acts the Corey duo plan for later books. It will delight first-time readers with an exploration of a new planet, and the political frustrations that stem from it. If you are new to The Expanse, just know that this is the turning point, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Rating: Cibola Burn – 10/10
-Andrew and Alex