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Minireview: Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

Cibola Burn is the fourth book in the “Expanse” series, and the first one to take place mainly on a planet outside our solar system. The gate system opened up by the alien “protovirus” has opened up a Pandora’s Box for humanity, and a mass exodus to the stars has begun – some with “official” blessing, most not so much. A large part of that has to do with the highly unstable political situation, where multiple parties claim to be the ones “in charge”. No single party actually is.

Some explorers and settlers had managed to use the gate system before the temporary military shutdown, and now some “official” expeditions are coming into conflict with pre-existing colonies on new, habitable planets. Foremost here is the planet Ilus, where a squatter colony’s claims is contested by a large, corporate expedition, and tensions are running high. Enter Holden and crew, and diplomats and negotiators. Yeah, right. Fat chance of that working out.

In a way it’s a bit of a Western, in its setup. Small, plucky settlers are being menaced by corporate power, threatening to steal their claim. Into this setup, a “neutral lawman” rides in. But of course, it’s not quite that simple; the colonists are no angels, and while the corporate head is a stereotypical Bad Guy, most of the people on that side are normal, decent folk. In any case, the “Western” bit morphs into something else, when it becomes clear the planet may be holding some ancient secrets of its own, and some of them may be waking up.

Like the previous books, it’s a fun ride and a great read. As typical here, the end portion is one long rollercoaster ride which wraps up nicely but leaves the big picture open for sequels. It answers some questions regarding the Miller/protomolecule storyline, but also opens up a few new ones. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and maybe not quite as coherent as a story as the previous ones, but still very much worth the read for people who have liked the series so far.

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Minireview: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse” series, and it’s quite something. Corey is a pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and the book/collaboration started out as a world background initially meant for a massively multiplayer online game. So a collaboration between two somewhat unknown authors, and a premise originally meant for a computer game? Not a promising start. However, the end result manages to be one of the most kick-ass space opera / adventure books in a good long while. It’s one of those really-hard-to-put-down books, and may very well have you reading way past your bedtime. You have been warned.

The plot consists of two initially unrelated storylines. In one, Jim Holden, XO on a ramshackle ice freighter, survives the destruction of his ship by an unknown stealth ship. Together with a few other survivors, he embarks on a quest to survive (first) and to bring the guilty parties to justice (later). Meanwhile, a partly down-and-out police detective on Ceres starts searching for a missing person, one Juliette Mao, a rich kid gone awol. Ultimately, both storylines converge towards a massive conspiracy threatening the whole solar system.

It’s great stuff. The characters are fun and while not spotless heroes, not dystopian antiheroes either. Jim Holden is the closest the book has to a true “hero” (along with his remaining crew), but all of them have their blind spots and bits of darkness. Miller, the detective, is more of a classic “disillusioned cop” case, but he works fine as a driving force in one of the investigations. As “space opera”, it starts out without anything too outlandish, no FTL drives or other totally impossible stuff. The solar system is colonized, but distances are still vast and travel takes time (though I think less than it realistically would). Near the end, things get a bit wild, but I won’t spoil that part. Politics play an essential part here, with the tensions between Earth, Mars and the outer planets constantly simmering on the edge of war. When the book starts, the situation is a bit of a powder keg; nobody actively wants a war, but it would not take much to nudge the powers towards one. And in walks Jim Holden…

Very warmly recommended. This is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a good long while. It’s also something quite refreshing: a no-nonsense, straightforward adventure tale, with enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing.

The series is currently being adapted for TV by SyFy. I’m cautiously optimistic, based on the trailers so far (though they’ve changed things quite a bit from the books).

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