For generations, the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt - was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus's orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless dark.
Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.
How do you destroy someone who is a household name, something of a icon to many, without making him into a martyr? You must first destroy them in the eyes of their believers, then tear them down from the lofty heights to the filth below, and finally leave them to wallow for a while until no-one cares about then or pays them any attention before you quietly remove them from the mortal plane. This is what one character - someone very closely related to the origins of Holden's journey from nobody to system-wide "somebody" - has in mind... and sometime revenge is a dish best served not cold, but served in the heat of fire and blood, lost in the icy vastness of empty space.
Quite possibly my favourite of the books so far, this story - while utterly tied into Holden's universe and following the vast story arc of the protomolecule - could almost be read as a stand-alone tale. It has been over three and a half years since I read Book 2 in the saga, and within a chapter I was back up to speed on all that had gone before. That, for me, is the sign of a stunning tale expertly executed - that it can re-weave all the important bits that have come before without doing a literary version of "Previously in The Expanse universe... our protagonist was facing certain doom, as usual, at the hands of [insert baddie of choice relevant to the story]..."
That irascible manipulator-extreme, Crisjen Avasarala - now one of the openly top players in the system-wide political playground - is pulling all the string attached to James Holden and while he is able to see it better, he is still powerless to avoid or countermand it... though he does pull a few surprises in typical Holden style. However, this book is far more about the main antagonist, the identity of whom is presented to the reader on a platter very early on, and their blithe hatred of all things Holden. The lengths this individual will go to towards the final goal of Holden's destruction as a focal point for the sphere of Humanity, are extreme and quite cold-blooded in many regards, yet we are also shown another side of our villain - that of a person driven towards a goal they feel devoted to, but regret some of the actions they must take in its service.
Then, of course, we have the protomolecule and the mysterious ring it has built, the purpose of which is theorised but not confirmed until someone utterly irrelevant does something extremely relevant - tries to thread the needle through it. We are then confronted with something that puts humanities petty existence into scale, as something with as much importance and influence as a handful or welding rods would to a construction engineer - disposable tools to be used and discarded with little to no thought.
Overall, this is a stunning book, and one I fully plan to read again at some point in the future. If you like big-scale space opera, if highly recommend you read this. You'll get far more out of it if you read the first two books, but they are not absolutely essential.
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"A man who is 'of sound mind' is one who keeps the inner madman under lock and key."
Paul Valery (1871 - 1945)