The Gates are open and humanity is headed for the stars. When Belter refugees colonise Ilus first, they’re not prepared to make way for the official corporate mission that follows – the Rocinante is sent to keep the peace – with Miller determined to come along for the ride.
I have two problems with Cibola Burn: firstly, that I really wanted it to return us to alien antagonists over humanity being shit; and secondly, that I’ve read Nemesis Games before writing this review. And while I was disappointed by Cibola Burn even while I read it, with its lacklustre POV characters and – you guessed it – horrible human beings, it’s even harder to be objective about it in the wake of the rollercoaster that follows it.
CIbola Burn is brought to us by (oh this is promising, I can’t even remember their names) Basia, a minor character from Caliban’s War who evacuated Ganymede after his son disappeared; Elvi, an Earther corporate scientist; and Miller’s erstwhile partner, Havelock, once again working security for a corporation with ambitions (honestly, he makes terrible employment choices).
This might not be so terrible if we hadn’t been given Bobbie in the prologue. While I warmed to 2 of the 3 new POVs in Abaddon’s Gate, I never got past wanting Bobbie back. In Burn, we get an all-too-brief glimpse of her life on Mars before we lose her again – and gain instead 3 characters I never really warmed to.
We meet Basia as he attempts first to blow up then to avoid blowing up a landing pad, in the first act of terrorism beyond the Gate. Refugees from Ganymede have settled on Ilus, only to discover the UN have granted a corporation (RCE) the rights to exploit it – making their little colony technically illegal. It’s the by-now traditional story of the Belter underdog against Earther aggression (because honestly, why do the UN have the right to assign all planetary rights to a corporation); but I’d have a lot more sympathy for their arguments if they hadn’t started out by killing a lot of people.
Much of Basia’s narrative is split between his belated regret for his actions (encouraged by his wife’s disapproval) and his occasional outbreaks of rage. I think I’m meant to sympathise – he’s clearly suffering from repressed guilt for abandoning his son on Ganymede, and PTSD for what he and his family went through after they fled it – but I mostly found this POV a little tedious between the incessant angsting and his controlling attitude towards his family. I would have much preferred to have had his sensible wife’s version of events.
I got on better with Elvi, environmental scientist and naïf, who survives her crash-landing on Ilus and promptly tries to get on with her work. I could believe in the way her work blinded her to the local politics (the scene where she tries to persuade the colonists not to go to the ruins because they’ll mess up the scientific results is a gem; she’s not wrong, but she’s so wrong-headed), and I liked that she was open to building bridges. I could even look past her convenience to the plot – once the protomolecular past comes into play, her specialism and willingness to co-operate are arguably a little too useful. But I couldn’t get past her romantic subplots. Yes, romance subplots frequently baffle me, but I have a real issue with SPOILER (mouse over to read) her discovery that she doesn’t have a crush on Holden, she just needs to get laid. With anyone, apparently. WTF? WTF. Consequently, my goodwill towards her evaporated just in time for the final act.
Havelock was promising in concept – although Miller’s partner was always more interesting in the tv show than he was in Leviathan’s Wake – as the security man left aboard the RCE vessel when his murderous boss took the rest of the team down to the surface to handle the local terrorists (and you know what? I’m not putting that in inverted commas. They are terrorists; part of my dissatisfaction with Burn is that everybody’s an asshole. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to have somebody to root for. I’m aware most of the colonists are Good People, it’s just unfortunate we only get to see that second and third hand, so it feels less immediate).
Unfortunately, Havelock is less interesting in the books than in the tv show. Crucially, his conscience is far less well developed. Book Havelock spends most of Burn obeying the sorts of orders that saw prison guards condemned at Nuremburg. TV Show Havelock would have challenged Murtry much sooner (and certainly not encouraged a bunch of Earther fascists to alienate their Martian and Belter crewmates and start fantasising about killing the crew of the Roci as fraternising scum). I may exaggerate, but only slightly.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s the usual incendiary plot which inevitably had turning the pages at a rate of knots as I wondered what would happen next (Corey is brilliant at potboiling, after all). Some of it (related to the protomolecule and the planet’s past) is fascinating. But far too much focuses on people being awful to one another.
I think I’d have found Burn easier to read in 2015. As it is, it just stressed me out and left me with little to enjoy beyond Naomi and Amos. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a bad book – but I’ll cheerfully skip it when I reread the series. Because here’s the thing: you can. Just read the prologue and the epilogue, and the rest of the whole sordid affair can probably be left on the cutting room floor.
Update: I was wrong about being able to skip Cibola Burn on a reread. Damn Corey and his ability to make everything relevant before the end of the series.