Best intentions of a peaceful protest go pretty bad quickly on Ilus, the world more officially designated New Terra under the terms of Royal Charter Energy’s exploratory agreement with the United Nations, when what was intended as an act of sabotage, a symbolic protest against the RCE’s newly constructed landing pad on the site of the original settler’s landfall, becomes an act of terrorism when the detonation of the explosives coincides with the arrival of an unscheduled shuttle.
A frontier tale, the fourth book of The Expanse is set in a very different arena, a planetary colony rather than shipboard, requiring a shift of perspective from both reader and the characters, the roster once again expanding to introduce Basia Merton and Elvi Okoye, ostensibly good people trying to do the right thing in terrible circumstances which are unravelling faster than they can stitch them back together, while observing from orbit is Dimitri Havelock, former partner of Josephus Miller back on Ceres.
Where the first three novels were driven by the primary effects of the protomolecule – the infection, the reshaping of the solar system both politically and physically, the creation of the gate beyond the orbit of Neptune – now that the universe is open to humanity it can take with it to the stars its hopes, ambitions, prejudices and anger. While the protomolecule itself takes a back seat in the immediate plot it is always present, aware if not conscious, watching if not actively monitoring, and for the first time in the text it is given a narrative voice, albeit abstract and detached.
The Rocinante sent to act as a mediator between the official RCE expedition and the colonists whom they regard as illegal squatters, Naomi Nagata believes they have been sent to fail, but Jim Holden counters that if he had felt that way he would have refused the request from Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, and for once his reputation is to his advantage: whether they like him or not, nobody can say that James Holden will do deals behind closed doors, hide the truth or participate in a cover-up if things don’t go according to plan.
And two years on from the events of Abbadon’s Gate, Joe Miller is still very much on Holden’s mind, more fully formed, more coherent, looking and sounding like the man he knew during the Eros incident but with Holden mindful that it is not Miller but an approximation created by the protomolecule which consumed him and is now processing his memories, always with its own agenda. With the gates open, the Miller construct is aware that whatever species created the protomolecule in the deep past is no longer extant and it wants to know what happened to them and what – or who – caused their extinction.
Ever the idealist, Holden is determined not to exacerbate the already fractious situation, insisting that his team go down with minimal armament despite the deaths which have occurred, but under Murtry, RCE chief of security, the aftermath of the tragedy has already been pushed from antagonistic to out of control. Some may view Holden as a herald of doom, a man who is followed by disaster wherever he goes, and true to style it never rains but it pours Biblical wrath from the skies of Ilus, a planet which is not nearly as stable or safe as first believed.
Default leader in the troubles, Murtry is frustratingly blunt in his motivations and actions, a trigger-happy, cynical, racist borderline psychopath who is happy to be provoked. His convenient monomania fulfilling the same narrative role as that of Captain Ashford of the Behemoth in the previous novel, Miller’s quite literal deus ex machina intercession on behalf of humanity with the otherwise impenetrable façade of the protomolecule also echoes the final chapters of both Leviathan Wakes and Abbadon’s Gate.
With a couple of additional crises seemingly only thrown in to increase the page count the finale is abrupt and less satisfying than that of the previous adventures of the Rocinante and her crew, though Cibola Burn remains a solid and fast paced read which passes far quicker than any tome of six hundred pages has any right to, the frustration is leavened by the tantalising epilogue which Avasarala shares with Bobbie Draper of Caliban’s War where she indicates all this is only a prelude to what is to come next: once again, everything is about to change.