The first time his father disappeared, Tucker Feye had just turned thirteen. The Reverend Feye simply climbed on the roof to fix a shingle, let out a scream, and vanished — only to walk up the driveway an hour later, looking older and worn, with a strange girl named Lahlia in tow. In the months that followed, Tucker watched his father grow distant and his once loving mother slide into madness. But then both of his parents disappear.
Now in the care of his wild Uncle Kosh, Tucker begins to suspect that the disks of shimmering air he keeps seeing — one right on top of the roof — hold the answer to restoring his family. And when he dares to step into one, he’s launched on a time-twisting journey — from a small Midwestern town to a futuristic hospital run by digitally augmented healers, from the death of an ancient prophet to a forest at the end of time. Inevitably, Tucker’s actions alter the past and future, changing his world forever.
-cover and description courtesy of goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: I absolutely adore this cover.
Maybe it’s the colors–the autumnal red and orange sky, the blue smoke swirling around it–or maybe it’s the text effects or the chilly pine trees on the horizon, but the composition just makes my brain very happy. And I’m not even typically a fan of “stuff floating” kinds of covers.
Planetary Class: Slightly surreal contemporary science fiction with a time travel twist.
Mohs Rating: It’s a time travel novel, and the “diskos” that drive the plot send us straight to a world of phlebotinum. 2 on the Mohs scale.
Viability Rating: We’re only given flashes of non-contemporary society. What we see hints at sophistication and solid worldbuilding, but generally it feels a little soon to tell.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: I’m not always a fan of third-person narration in YA–it can be distancing, in a genre whose success often depends on close identification with a novel’s protagonist. However, Hautman’s crisp, efficient, evocative prose is perfect. Any distance that’s created through the use of third-person only underscores the lonely, strange tone of The Obsidian Blade.
Expanded Report: In the hours since I finished reading The Obsidian Blade, I’ve contemplated several times what a possible inroads to a review might be. Most novels declare their theses clearly and easily: this is a story about adventure, or about defining oneself in a new world, or about coming of age. What’s most unusual about the opening book in the new “Klaatu Diskos trilogy” (and it’s a very unusual novel) is that it defies easy definition. And so I’m forced to resort to summary:
Fourteen-year-old Tucker’s preacher father climbs up to the roof one day and disappears. Several hours later, he appears on the road that leads to their house, several years older, and with a young blond girl in tow. That night at dinner, his father announces that they’ll no longer be saying grace because he’s lost faith in God. Life proceeds–Lahlia, the girl, is adopted out to a local family. But the strangeness continues. Lahlia’s cat never ages. Tucker’s mother becomes obsessed with Sodoku, and then is diagnosed as autistic. And then Tucker comes home one day to find his parents gone–his father has taken his mother away in search for a cure.
This initial section of The Obsidian Blade is perhaps the most “normal.” In many ways, it feels like a farewell to a suburban childhood–Tucker and his friends make trouble, play pranks, set up rope swings. But it’s also plenty unsettling. The suburban landscape feels right out of The Twilight Zone–colorless and chilly and vaguely upsetting. Hautman’s matter-of-fact tone just underscores the melancholy story.
The book just grows stranger from there, as Tucker and his Uncle Kosh begin to travel between times through the shimmering diskos–long-abandoned portals between significant human events. There are journeys to the far-future and to the past. Tucker witnesses 9/11 and the crucifixion of Jesus (rendered in stunning, gory detail). He’s rebuilt by future humans and loses several years of his life in some kind of manual labor camp. When he returns, his characterization is unchanged but he’s suddenly sporting a beard.
As the novel proceeded, I found myself wondering about its intended audience. Candlewick is advertising this as a title for audiences age twelve and up; several other reviewers have mentioned that this feels more like a middle grade than young adult novel. I can understand this; Tucker is a very young-seeming fourteen (at seventeen or eighteen, and characterized in much the same way, he frankly kind of creeped me out) and the novel is a chaste one, without any hint of sex and only the shadow of romance. But it’s also spooky, with several scenes that I’d easily call High Octane Nightmare Fuel–a giant maggot, for example, travels through time and eats people. A bunch of nanobot ants rapidly consume a corpse. Jesus’s crucifixion is depicted in gory detail. In light of that, this isn’t a book I’d give to a ten-year-old.
The religious themes, inventive world building, and time hopping reminded me of both A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass. But Tucker is neither a Lyra or a Meg Murry. He’s a bit of an anonymous everyboy, and I wonder if, because of this, the novel might give some YA readers pause. He never felt quite vividly enough defined for me. Yes, he’s young, and mischevous, but beyond that, he’s not particularly well-characterized.
In fact, I think The Obsidian Blade would best suit adult sci-fi fans with literary inclinations. The first section is a beautiful, nostalgic, and stirring look at the last moments of childhood. The most vividly-drawn character is Kosh, Tucker’s middle-aged, once-wild uncle. The religious themes that follow are nuanced and sophisticated. Unfortunately, even under this framework The Obsidian Blade doesn’t quite satisfy. It ends on a cliff-hanger, with more questions raised than addressed. Deep down, I wish this had been a hefty single volume rather than the first of three, likely-slim ones.
However, all that being said, Hautman’s prose is masterful. It inspired a confidence in me that the overall experience of the trilogy will be a satisfying one, and I’ll definitely seek out the sequels. It was an iminently interesting book, evocative in a way that few novels–young adult or adult–truly are. In the hands of a less competent writer, The Obsidian Blade would have fallen flat. But even though I ended the novel puzzled, I’m very glad I read it.