Title: The Obsidian Man
Author: Jon Wilson
Publisher: JMS Books
Series: Obsidian Man #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
There are a few LGBTQ books out there that I am completely baffled by. Not baffled in the sense that "This sucks, why is this published?", but baffled in the sense that I don't know how to grade the book. The Obsidian Man is a book that left a series of strong impressions on me. At first there was a lot of interest in the novel - it starts off strong and suggests a massive and interesting world on the horizon. Then, a giant dip in the middle of it caught me unawares and made the narrative frustrating. The ending wrapped it all up and managed to make me feel better about the affair. The Obsidian Man just isn't an easy book to judge, but it's certainly unique and an appealing indie fantasy for the YA and LGBTQ markets.
Holt has lived in a small town for as long as he's been alive - some thirteen odd years that have shaped him and confused him as to who he really is. His family is tough to handle, as is his life as a whole. Holt harbors a strong desire to leave his village and move someplace better. A place where someone like him can live without feeling emotionally drained. Holt's dream is to become a Danaan ranger. The Danaan, a race of people living in VaSaad-Ka, are known for the guardianship of other races and their abilities with magic. The Danaan are mysterious and accepting in a way that Holt's people aren't.
The possibility of becoming a ranger is small for Holt. One first needs to be apprenticed, and one also needs to be able to get to VaSaad-Ka. Holt latches onto a ranger taking residence in the village in order to achieve his goal. The ranger reluctantly introduces himself as Kawika and gets to know the young Holt, but is put off by his eagerness and his age. Holt is yet young, and to make such a decision is momentous for someone Holt's age. An apprenticeship to Kawika would require Holt to leave behind the village of Darnouth, its residents, and his family. The decision isn't one that Kawika wants to give to the boy just yet, but he underestimates Holt's persistence to the greatest degree.
Fate has different plans for the two, however. Holt's village is under Kawika's care, but even a skilled ranger cannot prevent everything from getting beyond a village's defenses. A hoard of trolls - known as jirran - and other monsters invade Holt's village and start a fiery decimation that changes Holt's life forever. His choice to become a ranger seems more validated than ever when he witnesses people being killed and buildings being burned to the ground. Death and destruction are only the beginning. A creature veiled in shadow threatens Kawika and enacts a destructive chain of events that starts Holt on a journey far darker than he ever anticipated.
Readers may be surprised to discover that Holt is as young as he is. The Obsidian Man is marketed as YA, and it does fit the marketing - but Holt reads like a character aimed at bridging the middle schooler/high schooler gap. He's still a tad young for romance - and he doesn't have a romantic arc in this book that one can see - and his actions are more about the self-discovery period of growing into one's young-adult stage. Holt, however, is still a character that shows a great deal of trouble and emotional promise. Holt starts out as a very single-minded boy bent on getting out of his village. He's very vague as to why he has to do so, but his determination is incredible (and at times frustrating when he interacts with Kawika). A large period of this book's middle deals with Holt going to a very dark place, and his initial personality gets lost as he deals with a tragedy that takes up a great portion of the rest of the book. Holt's narration gets very skewed as a result. The narrative becomes less focused and linear, and Holt doesn't have a truly sharp sense of the passage of time and of events going on. It reads as something that is purposeful. Yet, there are times in the narrative where it feels out of hand. The reader gets to the stage where the narrative structure is confusing without a defined purpose or value in the confusion, and those portions make Holt's narrative hard to care about at times. Eventually his character gets reigned in and we see enough of his emotional turmoil humanized, but the lasting effects of Holt's confusion leave a strange aftertaste to the reading experience.
The other characters have varying levels of interest. There are some like Kawika and his partner that are really worth exploring - their relationship, its place in their society and race, and how this leads to an eventual distance between Holt and Kawika's partner because of extenuating circumstances in the plot. I think Wilson hits those characters with high notes because of their sexuality and how there's a special care to the tenderness and relationship between Kawika and his partner, and how that translates into Holt becoming Kawika's apprentice and essential-ward, which effects how Kawika's partner views Holt. The other secondary characters are admittedly too confusing to garner a large level of interest. Most of them are introduced after Holt becomes a very addled character, and the narration ultimately follows Holt's mindset more than one would like after a while. The characters are introduced haphazardly, and none of them really stick out as being memorable - even in plot terms. Part of this could be their names, which are fantasy names and less likely to be memorable to the casual reader, but their introduction and placement in the plot makes it harder to see them as being inherently memorable or useful as characters. There is no grounding for these characters and their purpose in the plot, and it is reminiscent of watching a television show mid-season. The type of television show with one season-long story arc. You come along for the ride of the episode's singular story, but everything else screams that you have missed countless plot developments and character introductions. People are just acting without a clear sense of motivation, and thus you really can't find yourself caring about them the way you would if you started watching it from the beginning.
This is where The Obsidian Man loses steam. As Holt's character goes into a hazed mental state for a good portion of the book, the narrative follows it too closely. There's no feeling of separation when it focuses on other characters and events. Those characters and events are also rarely introduced, and sometimes one would have to read one page two or three times to try and determine why the character was even appearing in a scene or acting the way they were. This lack of introduction is a major storytelling flop in this case, because fantasy itself already requires the reader to ease into a new world with entirely new people. One does not have to start with two hundred pages of mindless filler, but a balance of explanation, general exposition, characterization, and plot movement is not too hard to find in a fantasy novel that starts off with a bang like The Obsidian Man. The trouble was that, as the novel went on, less focus went into events and exposition that helped lead the reader to a general understanding of things. It was also hard to determine what the terms meant in context of the text. The Obsidian Man does come with a glossary of terms, but the real test is always if those terms stand on their own without needing an authorial explanation. Most of them required going back to the glossary, which inhibited the reading experience because it took me out of the world in order to figure out what the heck was going on.
The Obsidian Man does have its strengths, though. The world is unusual and has a suggested broad scope to it. One can easily imagine taking several books in this world and seeing a very full place with a lot of well-defined characters and groups of people. I enjoyed learning about the Danaan, their social status with other races, and the impending darkness of the jirran and other monstrous beings. There's something so fascinating about those kinds of things in fantasy, and Wilson adds some unique touches to them. The Obsidian Man also has a lot of darkness to it that most people would not consider a young-adult/middle-grade aimed fantasy novel to have. In many ways The Obsidian Man is a story that expands far beyond Holt - though Wilson gets out of control with those stages at times and thus makes the plot hard to follow in the middle of the story. The ending of the novel manages to wrap things up and remind the reader of the initial goal of the book, and it gives one hope that the future novel(s) in the series will be more focused. This one just wasn't. A fantasy that aims to look at so many characters without explanation, backstory, and a solid thread between them is bound to confuse the reader to some extent - and to further that, the length of this novel really makes it hard to tackle that the way a large, door-stop fantasy can (like eventually get to the point because of the sheer length of the thing). Wilson's writing is solid and can be quite lovely in some passages, and I feel like the tone and voice of the novel are the strongest aspects because of Wilson's technique. He occasionally uses some seemingly random things in order to expand the narrative view - and as a result making those things feel artificial - but for the most part his writing is refined and shows a welcome new style in young adult. (Note that the protagonist, being thirteen, straddles the line between young adult and middle grade work). I was also glad that Wilson waited to incorporate any type of romance with Holt's story. In this case, it was a really good idea to keep a romantic thread out of the story arc for him.
The Obsidian Man is a hard book to pin down because of how varied my viewpoint of it was throughout the reading experience. At some points it was fabulous. At others, extremely confusing, and not because of complicated subject matter. This book is such a balance scale of good and bad, but ultimately I enjoyed reading it because it was fresh and the pacing and length of the story managed to push me through the middle. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but those looking for a unique start to a fantasy series with LGBTQ themes and a young-adult main character will find it worth a pick-up. I think the second book will do much better with the world having some type of establishment to it, and the flaws of this book weren't nearly so bad as to turn me away from trying out Wilson again.
Cover: Okay, this cover just sucks. It's very blurry and the bat makes *no* sense. It's supposed to represent a monster in the book (possibly), but the monster looks so far from a bat that I don't find it justifiable.
Rating: 3.0 Stars
Copy: Received from author for review (Thank you so much, Jon!)