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cover for Cibola Burn

The gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity's home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what's theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden - with help from the ghostly Detective Miller — can find the cure. (source)

The Expanse continues to be my favorite space opera series. I love it so much, friends. SO MUCH. That means I will continue to harass everyone to read the series. Sorry, Ana and Jodie, you're screwed. Just picture me lurking around your to-be-read-lists, casually inserting Leviathan Wakes (background reading) and Caliban's War (my real goal) every time you remove them. That's why you keep finding them there. I admit it. It's been me this whole time.

I love it so much I want it to be PERFECT so I can continue reccing it obnoxiously. As per usual, the harder I love something the more I'm often trapped going, "Well, this is GREAT but these things are here aren't so awesome…" and then it's a spiral into I Complain Because I Love.

Unfortunately, Leviathan Wakes is a hard sell to the people who I regularly demand read books and discuss them with me. There's quite of bit of orienting and explanation as the world takes shape and everyone is moved into position for later story arcs. The core POV character, James Holden, only really begins creating the team we'll grow to care about in Caliban's War, and their dynamic is hugely important in anchoring you in the world. When you're pals with people who care less about in-depth world building and more about character interactions and dynamics (and makeouts), Leviathan Wakes is a hard book to move onto people's lists. The biggest complaint I get when I rec it to people who don't finish is that it's boring and they chose to go read the latest space boyfriends AU in Fandom X instead (are there actually space boyfriends AUs out there besides all the SGA fics? I NEED RECS!). Because Leviathan Wakes is the first book in the series, it's hampered by the need to build the basis for the arc that will carry through to later books. It's not doing as much juicy character stuff yet. There's a little here, but mostly it doesn't truly begin until the second book.

This is just like a Caliban's War love fest. There's a reason I didn't review it, and that reason is 100% that it would have been a solid wall of ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ so I guess I'm making up for it here.

I discussed in my review of the first book that the initial outing of the series was doing pretty predictable things with tropes that rely on present day understanding of gender and gender dynamics to tell a story. It hits the women in refrigerator trope hard, but it's also doing some really creative, brilliant world building that makes it a mixed bag. A lot of the noir elements did this, but because I am ignorant of noir tropes I was like "this is boring, why is Miller such a sexist dick??? This is Julie's champion? ARE YOU SERIOUS?" I run into this a lot in my own writing, so I can appreciate how hard it is to really consider the implication of tropes and deploy them in complicated stories, which The Expanse very obviously is. Cibola Burn really makes it clear how much thought has gone into the characters we meet and the perspectives we see. It's really beautifully done. But I've started to consider the logistics of suggesting people start with Caliban's War and then read Leviathan Wakes as a prequel novel later. This may be the only time anyone ever sees me recommending something out of order.

The drastic improvement in some of these problems between Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War flabbergasted me. Sorry to say, even though Justin told me I would love it, I gave his recommendation the side-eye. Just for you, Justin: you were totally right. I liked the first book quite a bit despite my issues and expected problems in the second to render it the same sort of experience: fun, but problematic. Instead the second and third books bowled me over with how much I wholeheartedly loved a) the women introduced, b) the eventual development of the protomolecule storyline beyond ~zombies~, c) the politics and interpersonal relationships that characters develop with each other, and then d) Miller, who in the first book I wanted to launch into the sun. Sorry, Miller, apparently I only like your personality when you effectively have an alien intelligence jammed all up in you, wearing you like a snarky puppet. Insert robot tentacle joke here.

Cibola Burn reminds me more of Leviathan Wakes than the second or third books in the series, because it finally starts tackling the ongoing conflict between people from different parts of the solar system that Leviathan Wakes developed, and the social implications of what it means to be an Earther, a Martian, or a Belter in a tense political climate where scarcity results in escalating tensions. It also tackles colonialism, exploiting new biospheres (Elvi was totally right, colonists, she TOTALLY CALLED it, please declare her Science Queen immediately), trust, family, and the lengths we go to to build a home. There were new point of view characters who were all strange, complicated, terrified people, some of them suffering from terrible post traumatic stress and loneliness, and I was totally tickled to find the parallel of Holden and Miller repeated in Naomi and Havelock, but, you know, healthier, and less douchey.

The best, non-spoilery way to talk about Cibola Burn is that it's digging into some fascinating history of humanity as a species, how we explore new worlds, the nature of imperialism, and the promise of something that comes not from the thing itself, but our hope of the thing. It also reminds us that whatever that thing is, it's not guaranteed. I didn't know what "cibola" meant when I first picked up the book. Wikipedia says that "cibola" often refers to one of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, and that page says something I found super cool, which I am going to pretend is totally what the authors were going for:

Eventually returning to New Spain, the adventurers said they had heard stories from natives about cities with great and limitless riches. However, when conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado finally arrived at Cíbola in 1540, he discovered that the stories were 'lies' and that there were in fact no treasures as the friar had described — only adobe pueblos.

No one kill my dreams!

I definitely think Cibola Burn is worth reading just for the meta aspect (although the space drama and ELE are cool, too); the history nerd in me has been resisting emailing my American West/Colonial North America professor to scream "YOU HAVE TO READ THESE BOOKS AND THEN TALK ABOUT THEM WITH ME!" but I suspect sometimes he kept giving me A's so I would graduate sooner and leave him alone, so alas, it's not meant to be.


An excellent part of this book was protomolecule!Miller and the way he unfolds the mystery of the planet to Holden. I give Miller a lot of shit, but boy, did dying and being subsumed as part of the protomolecule improve his attitude. Good job, protomolecule; I like you. You're sassy and make Miller a more well-rounded person. Probably Holden would disagree with me, but I like that Miller keeps Holden off-balance, because otherwise Holden bores me. This is another reason why I love Fred Johnson and Chrisjen Avasarala. I would read a whole novella of Avasarala and Holden clashing and Avasarala casually squishing him like a bug. (You know, metaphorically.) We get small glimpses of this when Fred and Avasarala make Holden the UN mediator, as well through other people when Holden in on Ilus/New Terra. ("Thought you might want to ignore it intentionally," Amos says.) Seriously, Avasarala. I love her. I have a problem. SHE IS THE REASON EVERYONE NEEDS TO READ THESE BOOKS.

We finally get a little more of Alex's past, the pilot of the Rocinante, and now I know I'm going to miss him when the team gets back together as a whole; his series of interactions with Basia were some of my favorite emotional moments of this story, hands down. I love that crew to death, but Amos and Naomi take up a lot of narrative space from Holden's perspective, leaving less for Alex in other situations. He tends to be piloting while other characters are elsewhere.

And Basia. ♥ I have an incredibly soft place for people who screw everything up trying to do the right thing, who make mistakes and then own them, and who choose to be heroes when it would be easier to do anything else. In Caliban's War, the kidnapping and murder of children is somewhat eclipsed by the dread from Holden over the protomolecule still being on the board, and Prax's need to find his daughter, that the scope of the horror is limited. Basia takes us back there and it's heartbreaking because his baby didn't make it, they lost their home, and just wanted a place to start fresh, even if it was plagued with mistakes and desperation. I suspect these books are going to continue to do that as the series expands, and I'm already terrified about how heartbreaking it's going to be, because Basia's storyline is pretty gutting.

However! My love for this book is somewhat tempered by the fact that there's only one woman as a point of view character and I had serious problems with how the narrative treats her agency about her sexual choices. I also have questions about why sex was such a large and defining part of her storyline in the first place, for instance! Was there seriously no other way to do this? I still really don't get what it adds, and am bored by Holden being super duper special all the time, whatever the reason. Elvi is so fantastic: she's great at science, she cares a lot about scientific rigor and does her best in a terrible situation, she doesn't engage in the us versus them dynamic caused by the fighting between the Belters and the RCE folks, and she eventually gets to save the day, epically.

At the end of the book, though, I was very unhappy with the fact that such a huge portion of her story was chained to her sexuality and the narrative's implicit approval that her choices to not engage in sex with her co-workers was a negative; i.e. that her "lack" of sexual expression was a problem that needed to be solved in order to fix her. She's not having sex like everyone else and blowing off steam! Clearly that means she's going to meet Holden, become overwhelmed with lust, convince herself she's in love due to outside stressors, and become unable to perform her job unless she gets some dick in her. Because everyone knows the only way to be affectionate with and comforting to other humans is penetrative heterosexual sex!

In fairness, a major element of Cibola Burn is about being cut off from the rest of humanity and finding solace and comfort in the people beside you. Elvi's obviously extremely stressed, and she has friends but still feels pretty alone in a life or death situation, and Holden is, truthfully, a convenient target to reach out to because he symbolizes so many complicated things to so many people in the solar system: solutions for peace, hope, etc.. So when she finally works herself up to the point where she's going to tell Holden she loves him and clear the air (i.e. probably jump him), Fayez (a male co-worker, obviously) steps in to explain to her that she's just stressed out and horny. Really, he says, she hasn't had sex in ages like everyone else so she's created a scenario about Holden in her mind that doesn't exist! It would be a mistake to go to him, so why doesn't she just fuck Fayez instead if she needs to let off some steam? He's right there. He does this while interrupting her constantly, not listening to her, and talking over her, all before his magnanimous offer of sex which he clearly thinks he's going to get shot down over. The narrative's only nod that this might be a shitty move is Elvi's reaction, which is very quickly brushed over:

"You’re telling me," Elvi said, her voice equal parts outrage and ice, "that I just need to get laid?"

Fayez slumped back against the wall, defeated.

"I’m saying you’re human, and humans take comfort from each other. I’m saying you don’t want Holden for the person he is, because you don’t know him, and you’re making up a story about him so that you feel okay about taking the thing you need because God forbid you should have a need that isn’t all twinned up with romantic love. And…"

"And?" she said. "Go on. I don’t see why you should stop now."

"And." Fayez sighed. "And I’m right here."

It took a moment for her to understand what he was saying. What he was offering.

But of course he doesn't get shot down. Elvi has sex with him and immediately she's thinking clearly again and can focus on her work. My favorite part is his sigh. What a hardship for you, Fayez! Having to break it to her so bluntly!

I'm still having problems unpacking my issues with this part of Elvi's storyline, considering how much I loved her and wanted better for her since the situation was already awful. There's nothing explicit to point to in order to say "WHOA, hold up, I'm skeeved out". But if Elvi has a stress response, and it would be a mistake for her to go fuck a stranger who she's convinced herself she's in love with due to that response? Then it's still effectively emotional coercion that Fayez uses to get Elvi to fuck him instead. When Fayez explains to Elvi why having sex with Holden would be irrational because of her emotional state, while constantly interrupting her replies, he then turns around and tells her to have sex with him under the same circumstances like it's somehow a super rational solution. The book implicitly sides with Fayez (please do not have sex with a stranger while you are stressed) and Fayez's actions (even though you are stressed, you should fuck me!), even though it's a contradiction.

I liked Fayez up until this point. After, I was seriously like "GTFO", because he basically offers up his magical problem solving dick to resolve Elvi's issues, and it works, and the narrative does nothing at all to suggest that he might be taking advantage of their trust, friendship, and working relationship by pulling this crap when Elvi's very obviously emotionally compromised. The narrative frames him as powerless and Elvi as the one with the agency and 100% able to consent because she "chooses" to have sex with Fayez. If her "choosing" to proposition Holden for sex based on overblown emotions due to stress at this point is a mistake, then her agreeing to have sex with Fayez at this point is also a mistake.

And the later Elvi goes on a rescue mission and brings Fayez with her because they're probably all gonna die. "It's like a honeymoon!" she says, because HAVING SEX IS LIKE GETTING MARRIED???, and Fayez goes all boneless and pliant. nO sTOP why jesus fucking christ I was so glad this asshole got shot/pummeled/whatever later by Murtry. I WAS SO GLAD, and I'm not sorry.

woman in storm getting hit by a stop sign

Anyway, I was very saddened by what seems to be the end of Miller. Oh Miller! I really disliked you, then you died, then I really liked the new you, and then you died again. I only regretted it the second time. But what does it mean for the other planets like this? What happens to them when you're not there to fix things/shut things down? Seriously, of all the character deaths to affect me (although one in Abaddon's Gate was terrible and left me screeching in AGONIZED FURY), of course it would be Miller. OF COURSE.

I really wanted to love this book up to my eyeballs. Instead, it's around my shoulders or something, which on the whole is pretty good since I am apparently the pickiest reader in the entire world. I get weird about sex and consent, ya'll. I get weird. This book is still pretty awesome, even with all my (many, potentially excessive) complaints; it's some of the most entertaining and accessible space adventure I've found so far in my quest for space adventure, and it makes me really happy, and I am going to eventually crack and start writing fic featuring Avasarala and Bobbie on their OWN space adventures. I am suddenly REALLY GLAD I saved one of the novellas to read because otherwise I would be clawing my eyes out because the next book in this series doesn't come out until next year (PROBABLY? IT BETTER, ORBIT.). EVERYTHING IS SUDDENLY AWFUL. Why did I read this book so quickly? Ugh.

Additional Notes


    Avasarala: DON'T PUT YOUR DICK IN IT
    Holden: I'm gonna put my dick in it

    Good job as usual, Holden! Good job.

  • I spent so much time in this novel really happy when people were getting shot. I don't know what that says about me. Someone gets shot in the eye: YES, finally, that guy bit it, awesome! Someone gets shot IN SPACE? YES, I hated that jerk, Havelock gave you SO MANY CHANCES. Amos gets shot: oh shit yesss Holden's gonna lose his temper and shoot someone and I'm EXTREMELY PLEASED.

  • Naomi and Havelock becoming pals was THE GREATEST. They were everything Holden and actual!Miller weren't when partnered. I would watch this buddy comedy. "Stop laughing at me!" Havelock gripes. "Who's laughing?" Naomi says, as she cracks up at him. "DON'T BE AN ASSHOLE OR I'LL LEAVE YOU IN SPACE!" Naomi says. Havelock: *immediately does the thing* This is my stop.

  • I loved the death slugs but was terrified of the death slugs. DEATH SLUGS, THOUGH. This planet is terrible, why would people live here? They're all going to die.

  • Miller, your thing for young ladies is showing, and it''s a little creepy. However, I am still sad you're gone because I was really hoping for more Quantum Leap-esque Miller/Holden adventures in space. SIGH, I will hold out hope for some kind of miraculous return. In an AU somewhere, I totally ship Holden/Miller and Naomi/Sam. Then I come back to reality and cry for three years because nothing is good and everything hurts.

  • Every life saved there filled someone somewhere else with relief and joy. Every life snuffed out before its time was another Katoa. Someone, somewhere, having their heart torn out BASIA.

    I am crying right now.

  • I apparently have a thing for characters who love to pack excessive weaponry on their person. I need the hilarious fic where Holden and Amos are going on some mission and Holden stops him before they leave and goes, "okay, I said small weapons only." and Amos begrudgingly pulls the small missile launcher out of his pants and hands it to Naomi, bitterly, as she laughs at him for getting busted. Then he gets even more bitter when Holden's all, "the backup, too." BASICALLY I SHIP AMOS/FIREPOWER.

  • Other Reviews:
    Staffer's Book Review

    Date: 2014-06-25 07:11 am (UTC)
    coalescent: (Default)
    From: [personal profile] coalescent
    Wait, wait, wait. Justin was right about something?

    Date: 2014-06-25 07:46 pm (UTC)
    hawkwing_lb: (Default)
    From: [personal profile] hawkwing_lb
    I feel I should apologise to Justin for starting the "Justin is WRONG on the internet!" meme. my defence, he used to be wrong a lot more often than he is now. :P

    Date: 2014-06-25 08:17 pm (UTC)
    hawkwing_lb: (Ned virtue)
    From: [personal profile] hawkwing_lb

    I do like an icon that can converse on its own. :)

    Date: 2014-06-25 04:12 pm (UTC)
    From: (Anonymous)
    Thank you for your explanation of the Elvi issue. Gives me something to chew on.

    Date: 2014-06-27 01:58 pm (UTC)
    bookgazing: (Default)
    From: [personal profile] bookgazing
    Should I genuinely read these out of order?


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