Thea: Throwback. That is the one word I think of when trying to write this review for The Obsidian Blade. Pete Hautman kicks off a new science fiction series by eschewing traditional linear storylines and expectation, by provoking questions of religion, history and causality, and does it in a way that is a most excellent throwback to old-school b-movie sci-fi. While the actual story is light on actual plot, I love this introductory novel to a strange version of our world where diskos manifest and certain key players can jump through time and space.
Ana: Well, dear readers, I fell hard for The Obsidian Blade and the more I think about it, the more I love it. The Obsidian Blade is thought-provoking AND fun, its time travelling factor well conceived (I can think of no plot holes) and with a brilliant omniscient narrative voice. Most of all, I absolutely, completely adored the self-assured writing style. If I didn’t know any better, I would think this book was written for me.
On the Plot:
Thea: Tucker Feye lives a quiet life in Hopewell, Minnesota with his beautiful mother Emily and his deeply religious preacher father, Adrian. One summer day, Tucker watches his father fix a missing shingle on the roof, only to inexplicably disappear into thin air. Not exactly thin air – into a shimmering disk that appears above the roof. An hour later, a frantic Tucker finds his father walking up the road as though nothing has happened – except his clothes are in tatters (save for a pair of strange blue slippers), his face has seemed to have aged years, and he has a young teenager girl in tow. Despite Tucker’s probing questions and his mother’s fears, Adrian refuses to speak about his disappearance, the mysterious girl Lahlia, or his sudden and absolute loss of faith. Slowly, following Tucker’s father’s return, his mother starts to become increasingly withdrawn, obsessed with rituals, numbers, and nonsensical puzzles – and gradually, she loses her mind.
With doctors stumped, Tucker’s father takes matters into his own hands – and one day Tucker comes home to find his parents gone, with just a cryptic note saying that they have gone to find help in a far away place. Tucker’s estranged Uncle Kosh shows up shortly thereafter, ready to take Tucker away from the town he calls “Hopeless”. Frustrated and seeking answers, Tucker knows that his parents’ disappearance must have something to do with the appearance of those strange, shimmering disks – and when he spies one appear over Kosh’s barn, he plunges in and finds himself hurtling through time and space on a quest to find and save his family.
It is hard to write more about the actual synopsis of The Obsidian Blade without giving anything away (or sounding crazy) because there is a whole lot that goes on once Tucker discovers the diskos and jumps into the past and far, far future – to eras with temples, priests and human sacrifices, to advanced medical facilities, to forests at the end of the world. The idea of these diskos, created at some point in the future by someone known as Iyl Ryn, is a fascinating one. While the conceit of future creatures coming back in time to view some of the landmark events (mostly atrocities) that have occured in human history is not a novel one and plenty of science fiction authors have tread this ground before The Obsidian Blade, it’s a conceit that I think works very well. I love the H.G. Wells-ian, Time Traveler-esque feel to Tucker’s leaps into the far future and the devolvement of humanity (or is it even humanity anymore?) into creatures bent on sacrifice, fixated on technology with the onset of the “Digital Plague”, the perversion of religion similar to the days of the Maya and Aztecs of old, and ultimately, the lack of corporeal flesh and bone. (I also love the classic references to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Army of Darkness, from a purely nerdy perspective.) All of these elements are exposed in The Obsidian Blade, but nothing is really explained – and that’s ok. This is much more of a teaser, an amuse bouche, rather than the actual entree of the series.
Which brings me to my sole criticism of the book, with regard to plot and story. You know that phrase, waiting for the anvil to drop? THat’s how I felt the entire book. I kept waiting to learn about some jaw-dropping revelation (Tucker is Kosh is Adrian! Emily is Lah/Yar Lia! The Iyl Rayn is an anagram for Lia Ryyn! And so on) – and when that didn’t happen, because the book and the series is clearly building up to a bigger revelation, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. That said, this clearly is the first novel in a trilogy, and while setting and groundrules are established here, more meat is sure to come in the next two books.
Ana: Unlike Thea I don’t think The Obsidian Blade was light on plot – I thought that not only plenty happened but I also was pretty satisfied with what I’ve got especially when it came to the book’s thematic core. It is a strange little story, this one. The book opens with a short prologue which introduces us to the future history of this world, of our world, a post-digital future where most of humanity is discorporeal and enjoying the profoundly disturbing entertainment of watching the past – key, horrifying events of the past – via portals named diskos.
We then move to the present to follow Tucker, an extremely naive young boy who still plays with his toys. One day his father – a Reverend – disappears in front of his eyes and comes back one hour later looking much older and having lost his faith in God completely. Interestingly, it is the latter that disturbs young Tucker most profoundly. Until, of course, he learns of the diskos and is sucked (literally) into other timelines. But that doesn’t happen much, much later in the book and its first half more or less is dedicated to develop and introduce Tucker, his family and his life in Hopewell. The author takes his sweet time with his and I although there is an element of “introduction”, I thought this was essential to the story in terms of establishing the grounds for the setting and for the characters. It is more than introduction, it is framing and I loved the first part of the novel as much as I loved the second. Of course, this being a time travel novel and all, any minor detail which might seem random, could also mean something extremely important. And of course, we have no idea if any of Future Tucker’s actions have had consequences for his timeline or not. And that is absolutely brilliant.
This first part also establishes the very personal nature of this novel and of this world. Sure, we are talking about the future and changing the world but fundamentally, this is a story about a boy, his family and their relationship with faith and technology. I thought the book to offer a keen, frank, thought-provoking look at our connections with religion (more on that later on) and technology (technology is not inherently bad, it seems to say, but watch out for how we use it). I had no problems believing in the horrible voyeuristic future of their society as being a possible one for our own.
The story itself is fun (like any time travel story has the potential to be) but also incredibly gut-wrenching and courageous. The author does not shy away from delivering punches, from killing people off, from completely exploring the terrible possible consequences of time travel. It also lands Tucker on several horrific historical moments and they are described in gory detail (one of those moment nearly made me sick).
The narrative is delivered by a matter-of-fact omniscient narrator who narrates from several characters’ point of view. At times, I wondered if the narrator isn’t part of the story – from the future, telling what “happened” and in that sense how much can we truly believe this narrative?
And finally a word on the writing. Pete Hautman’s is just my kind of writing: self-assured, competent, with no shortcuts or clichés. It speaks of a seasoned writer whose other books I need to read NOW.
On the Characters:
Ana: The first thing to say is how there is an element of distance between the reader and the characters of the book – I think this stems from the omniscient narrative itself and I don’t think it was a problem per se. I didn’t, for example, love Tucker but that might be because he sounds oddly out of time (no pun intended) and too naïve and childish for a 14 year old. That said, I completely and absolutely loved his interactions with just about anyone else in the book (but mostly with his uncle Kosh, whom I LOVED). His relationship with his father changes and evolves with time as well (hee) and since they are both time travellers, it is really interesting to see how witnessing the same events and undergoing the same experiences affect them both so differently.
Most intriguing of all for me, is how the religious aspect is played out in the book. I am a reader who avoids and dislikes any kind of read that tries to be too didactic or promoting a religion as the UNIVERSAL truth. I do, however, LOVE to see and read books about single characters’ PERSONAL relationship with their faith. I think this book does really interesting, thought-provoking things with the conceits of religion, faith and destiny from a personal point of view. I loved that time travel in this story affects the characters’ lives and their personal beliefs – it is fun to see how Tucker’s father lost all of his faith, whereas Tucker’s has been reinforced. In that sense, no traveller in this story has been left unscathed and they are not simply breezing through time la-la-la-di-da-ing their way through it. There are consequences to their actions and they are both physical and psychological.
I just have one request for the next books – that Lah Lia becomes even more of a central character because holy crapoles was she awesome and that we get to see a bit more diversity? That would just make this whole business all the more impacting and awesome.
Thea: I agree with Ana that there is a certain distance from characters in this book, but I don’t think this is to the detriment of the novel at all. I felt like the character of Tucker is a fantastic protagonist that is both sympathetic, heroic, but not infallible. I love that he has a wildchild sort of daredevil/can’t-sit-still attitude, but underneath all of that is a boy that is desperate for his mother and his father. Can I be a little cheesy and say, there is a definite Star Wars vibe to this book and the relationship between Tucker and his father? There’s a palpable tension, between love, loyalty, and morality, and I love the way this relationship plays out in the book.
Like Ana, I also loved Kosh and the bond between uncle and nephew, and I KNOW there has to be more to this story, and Kosh’s involvement with Tucker’s mother…
And lastly, yes, I love Lahlia/Yar Lia (and her kitten, aptly named Bounce), and I cannot, absolutely cannot, wait to get more of her in book 2. Can I have book 2 now, please?
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: I truly enjoyed The Obsidian Blade for its wonderful writing, fantastic characters, and scifi throwback appeal. Absolutely recommended…and now I am totally stalking the author’s backlist (there are a TON of awesome sounding books on there! Hello, Godless, Mr. Was, Rash, and Hole in the Sky!).
Ana: I absolutely loved this book from its great opening to its awesome fist-pumpy ending and consider this to be one of the best SciFi YA novels I’ve ever read. It is a Notable Read of 2012 and you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if it made its way into my top 10 next December.