What's a Cibola?

This book shouldn't exist.  There's no real reason for it, and I'm kind of annoyed by its very existence.  Cibola Burn is the fourth book of the Expanse Trilogy.  Yes, book four of three.

The Expanse Series was finished.  They'd completed the story and it was done.  And yet, here we are with another book in the series, and two further in the wings; thanks, Orbit.  And, of course, I bought it and read it because I'm an idiot who likes to encourage authors to stretch series beyond their completion.

Anyway, the nuts and bolts: the Expanse Series is the sci-fi series by James SA Corey.  Which is to say, the series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.  It's set in a futuristic world where the earth has partially colonized Mars, the larger asteroids, and a few outer moons.  It's some pretty crunchy sci-fi, so there's no laser blasters or teleporters.  In fact, the books even deal with things like acceleration, water consumption, air consumption, and other mundane issues.

While the books shift focus (using Point of View characters), the main focus of the series is the four person crew of the Rocinante a "salvaged" Martian warship.  While we also focus on other characters, the central character in the books is James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante.

The other main plotline running through the books, the main motivator for the events of all the books, is something called the "protomolecule", which is a biological organism from an ancient, ancient race of beings that were long dead before life crawled out of the muck on Earth.  While this ancient, unnamed, race has been dead for billions of years, there are hints that they may actually be the source of all intelligent life in the universe.  Or at least the ultimate source of life that led to humans, and these books don't have other intelligent life.  And, of course, because you can't have an ancient progenitor without an even older enemy, there's some kind of... adversary out there that was responsible for the death of the progenitor species.  All of this is naturally shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, because you can't just spell it out for your readers; gotta keep the mystery.

So, annoyances at the book existing aside, what's this one about?  Well, when the trilogy was completed, they had discovered... well... they discovered a sort of Grand Central Station for the ancient, long-dead race.  Essentially a giant wormhole clearing house.  Pop in through a ring (think, I dunno, a Stargate in space) and appear in the station.  Go out through a different ring, and you're who knows how many zillion miles away.  As these things go, its a handy way to have FTL travel without breaking the laws of physics or needing to worry about that whole time dilation thing.  It's a suitable crunchy solution to the whole distance thing, allowing for traveling vast distances instantaneously without the side effects.  And wormholes pay lip service to physics.  Fair enough.

The whole of the book deals with colonizing one planet in one system that the Ring led to.  And since we're humans, it's a messy, awful affair involving corporate land grants and refuge squatters.  And lithium.  Lots and lots of lithium.  Because, apparently, the ancient race of ancients didn't just settle for hypertech in the realm of space travel and bioengineering, they also built custom planets.  It seems they decided to stock this one with a whole mess of lithium.  And since lithium is valuable and limited (normally), that makes mining rights on the planet very valuable.  Had it been a relatively boring planet, the conflict might have been avoided, or at least mitigated.

Personally, I'd hold out for the Coffee Planet.  Or perhaps the Pizza-and-Beer Planet.

Regardless, while this isn't the Blue Collar Spacemen of Steel's work, it's still very human.  You have your guys just trying to do their jobs, your fresh-faced naive scientists, your refuges who just want a home after the protomolecule destroyed theirs in book 2, the scrappy crew of the Roci, and, of course, your amoral evil corporate bastards.  Luckily that last one isn't too heavy handed.  I mean, he's a souless bastard and probably a clinical sociopath, but he's not being used as a strawman for all corporate types, or all security types.  Incidentally, I've always liked their portrayal people who work security.  Granted, they're high-end, paramilitary corporate security, but they're still shown with humanity and generally as people who just want to do their job, do it well, and go home.  Needless to say, I can relate to that.

The comically thin badguys (human ones, not ancient alien ones (who may or may not be badguys as they're too unknowable)), on the other hand, are getting a little tiresome.  This wasn't a problem in the first two books (for the most part), but it cropped up in Abaddon's Gate and it's especially bad here.  There's more than enough going on that we don't need foaming-at-the-mouth bad guys just to provide antagonists that can be shot.  The sad thing is, they're so paper thin that they become little more than filler or padding.  Toss a couple monkey wrenches, squeeze out another ten pages.  And, really, when you're in a decaying orbit and are hours away from burning up in atmosphere, an over zealous engineer isn't really adding much to the story.  The danger already existed.  The time on the bomb was already counting down, you didn't need to add a rabid dog.

The book also has these "interludes".  Short chapters told from the perspective of the protomolecule.  I guess.  I'm not sure.  They're helplessly vague and border on being mysterious for the sake of being mysterious.  But they're also written with the feel of "Oooo... I'm foreshadowing things!" so you don't want to ignore them for fear you'll miss something.

So there we are.  Cibola Burn.  A pretty good story that has some serious issues and that didn't need to exist in the first place while also perfectly setting up the major geopolitical strife for the next two books.  It doesn't really stand alone; at this point, you really need the first three books to make sense of who some of the characters are and to understand what's going on with the protomolecule and the ring and all that stuff, but who starts in the middle of a series any more?  Despite not needing to exist, it continues the story about as you'd expect.  The first three books are well worth reading, and if you enjoy them, this one probably is too.  What can I say?  I liked and enjoyed it.

And part of me hates it for existing.

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