Corey, James S. A. Cibola Burn.

NY: Orbit Books, 2014.

This writing team has recently been turning out some of the best hell-for-leather space opera I’ve read in years, and this fourth volume in the “Expanse” series maintains both the quality and the pace. The cumulative plot has become very complex (don’t even think of starting this epic anywhere but at the beginning), and I won’t attempt to summarize what came before, but suffice it to say that the Protomolecule hasn’t disappeared. Or at least its legacy is still around.

The newly-established gateway out near the orbit of Uranus provides a new frontier — access to a thousand new potential homes for mankind — and the UN back on Earth, with the assistance of Mars, are determined to do things right. They’re going to move slowly and carefully and gauge the effect humans and the alien planets will have on each other before allowing a “land rush” to all those new worlds. A group of Belters from Ganymede, however, having been denied refugee status everywhere in the Outer Planets, has preempted them. They’ve run the gauntlet, passed through the gateway, and grabbed the first new world they came to, which turned out to be loaded with lithium deposits — a very valuable commodity back in our solar system. But then, just as they’re getting settled, establish a village, and think they’re safe, another ship shows up, this one a corporate vessel loaded with the aforementioned scientists, with a UN charter giving them control of the planet.

The colonists — or “squatters,” depending on which side you’re on — aren’t about to give up their new home and some of them become terrorists. Avasarala, back at the UN, turns to James Holden, the hero-figure whose actions throughout the series have made him famous, as the perfect disinterested go-between. He’s not a diplomat (“everyone hates him equally”) and he believes in telling the truth all the time and very publicly, but he’s the best they’ve got. And he’s going to have his hands full, especially with Murtry, the sociopathic corporate head of security, who declares martial law and starts shooting colonists.

The authors like to alternate among POVs in succeeding chapters, which this time includes Dr. Elvi Okaye, in charge of the biology-botany team, who can live with the possibility of dying young as long as it doesn’t keep her from recording her observations of humanity’s first completely alien biosphere. And there’s Havelock, who used to be the partner of Detective Miller back on Ceres, before Miller became a ghost, and who is now Murtry’s second-in-command, but he’s going to surprise even himself. And there’s Basia Merton, one of the colonist-refugees, who has been fighting the guilt of discovering he left one of his kids behind on Ganymede, whom he thought was already dead, but wasn’t. And now he doesn’t know why the rest of the universe shouldn’t suffer, too. And none of them are aware, of course, that the aliens who built the Protomolecule never actually abandoned this planet.

This is really good stuff. Good story, credible characters, high-quality worldbuilding, well-thought-out contextual background. And when you come to the Epilogue, you will discover just why Holden was chosen for this mission, and exactly how — in Avasarala’s view — he has screwed things up yet again.

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