James S.A. Corey’s Cibola Burn is the fourth book of the Expanse series. I loved the first three and love this one, too. It’s impossible to talk about this book at all without massively spoiling the first three books, so I’m not going to do that; but I do want to talk about how it ties in to those earlier books, because I think that’s maybe the most impressive thing about this series.
As the series opens, we’re in very familiar SF territory: It’s a Mars ‘n’ belters future from the 1950s, and a mysterious alien artifact has been encountered. It’s a very classic Big Cosmic Mystery setup, like Rendezvous With Rama or 2001 or the Heechee Saga or the Uplift books or… well, like I say, it’s a very classic setup.
And so usually this goes two ways: Either the mystery is left unfulfilled, being all cool ‘n’ mysterious and unknown past the pages of the book, or after a lot of buildup, they finally figure out the mystery and it’s disappointing and stupid, because nothing could really live up to the massive buildup of a whole series’ worth of mystery. (Actually, it usually goes both ways: The initial book leaves the mystery unsolved, and later the author unwisely goes back and explains it to the disappointment of people who’ve had it rattling around in their head for years or decades. There really was no way that Rama Revealed or 3001 or Heaven’s Reach could have succeeded.)
But Corey’s series avoids that pitfall. It sets up the big mystery, and then proceeds to start unraveling it. In each book of the series, there’s a major revelation that answers a big question we had… and sets up another mystery. So rather than one Big Mystery that can never be satisfyingly answered, we get little mysteries that get satisfactory answers that don’t drain the series of narrative tension. It’s really well done.
And as a nice bonus, each of the books along the way manages to deftly combine human-scale problems with cosmic-scale mystery, move along at a brisk and engrossing pace, and let us hang out with a bunch of interesting people. If you like SF and haven’t read these, you need to remedy that.