Book review: Obsidian by Sarah J. Daley

(courtesy Angry Robot Books)

Good fantasy tales often rise and fall on the strength of their world-building.

Sure, you need compelling characters in whom you can become invested and a driving narrative that takes you to utterly extraordinary places but none of which really stacks up if the world in which it all takes place doesn’t ring true.

Obsidian by Sarah J. Daley is a pitch perfect example of why world-building matters, and why it if it’s done well, which it most certainly is in this richly told novel, it can make all the difference to a tight, enthralling plots and characters so memorable you will be hard pressed to forget them.

The land of Malavita, in which Obsidian is set, is quickly established as a beleaguered land under blight, its once verdant fields and forest, its arable land and even its people laid near to waste by the centuries-old lingering aftereffects of a titanic war between the magically powerful Sicani, the original inhabitants of the place and the demonic Unseen whose only concern is wreaking total and annihilistic destruction.

While the Unseen and the Sicani have retreated to the realms of myth and legend, the present inhabitants of Malavita, split between the wealthy and powerful who shelter under blood magic-wrought Veils and enjoy bountiful land and richly appointed urban settings and the people of the Wastes such as the nomadic Golondrina who eke out a scarce living and are charged with keeping the magic that does remain alive untarnished by the evil which still stalks the land.

“‘I am no murderer,’ Shade said, speaking casually despite her pounding heart. Her own blades were strapped to her calves and she itched to draw them. But she knew how fast Raiden could wield his sword. She’d never reach them. Force was not the answer.” (P. 33)

If that isn’t a tantalisingly beguiling amount of detail for you, Daley embroiders the breadth, length and depth of her world-building still further by superlatively setting out the dystopian inequalities that pervade Malavitan society and how the corrupt church that heads the theocratic government of the country, headed by the Brotherhood who have lost their way such as they are little more than thugs and autocrats, rules a land under occupation by the mighty Bhaskar Empire whose representative, Raiden Mad, the seventh illegitimate son of the emperor, has sound cause to wonder what it is they have gotten themselves into.

If you worry that this all means big, dense tracts of highly unattractive exposition, please think again.

Daley weaves an extraordinary amount of illuminating information about Malavita’s society, culture and magical and religious underpinnings effortless and flawlessly into a narrative than does once feel weighed down by the sheer amount of detail given to readers.

In fact, much like the wizards and the lone witch who populate Obsidian, Daley rather magically manages to deliver a wealth of world-building information while still powering a storyline that races ahead at a rate of knots as the protagonist, Shade Nox races to set up her own Veil for her people, the Golondrina, all too aware that something is going still further wrong in a land already beset by more than its fair share of trials and tribulations.

courtesy Angry Robot Books)

What makes Obsidian an even more compelling novel is the intense likeability and earnest authenticity of Nox who possesses a fearsome skill in magic that rivals many of those who oppose her, and in a society as sclerotically self-indulgent and bound to rotten power wielding as Malavita, they are legion, she stands out for the sheer purity of her intent.

She’s by no means perfect but with a raft of allies such as Raiden Mad, man of integrity and aristocrat Dante Safire and his men backing her, this feisty, prepossessed and hot-headed young women is a breath of feminist hot air in a world that is bound to only seeing what is and what might be.

Her willingness to do the right thing and to press on no matter who opposes and what kind of challenges stand in her way, makes her an utterly compelling lead character, infusing Obsidian‘s richly-written narrative, that brims with future vitality and past/present darkness in equal measure, with a sense of momentum and an exciting sense of possibility.

For those readers who have always felt themselves marginalised or cast aside as unacceptable to mainstream orthodoxy, Nox is also an inspiration and a joy because she refuses to listen to those who call her an abomination, delivering cutting retorts and blazingly declaration of tenacious intent in the same determined way that she carries her powerful obsidian blades.

Nox is the protagonist of your world-changing, or ateaslt, world-challenging dreams and she fills Obsidian with a power and ferocity of selflessness and integrity that inspires every bit as much as it entertains.

“Its massive head swung towards her. She froze. A deafening bellow blasted from it, a noise that reverberated through her bones. Behind her, she could hear glass crashing to the ground. She risked a glance over her shoulder – there was a path opening in the trees, a shadowy space in the glistening forest. Could she lose it among the trees? Matteo and Angelo had disappeared so thoroughly.

I’ll find them.” (P. 189)

It’s no surprise then that a lead character so powerfully intense and true to her word will attract equally passionate fellow travellers, all of whom go with her into the Wastes to raise her Veil, battling mishappen beasts, demonic entities and a general sense of magic gone rotten, a deeply worrying dynamic which is accelerating and making Nox’s singular mission all the more urgent.

Obsidian is such an unmissably captivating read because it deftly combines full speed ahead action, the brokenness of people and a society in decline, those brave and oral enough to try and save it, and a tremendous amount of humanity together with a beguiling sense of otherworldliness and mystery.

The world of Obsidian hides a great deal and as we venture ever further into the story, Daley reveals just enough at just the right time to keep us on the edge of our seat and fundamentally and irrevocably invested in the characters.

This is masterful fantasy writing that creates and sustains an immensely complex and fascinating world, that populates it with people who, even if they are on the wrong side of history, are never less than compelling, and gives us a story rich in possibility, integrity and truth, binding it all together with a humanity so vibrantly true that Obsidian is one of those novels that for all its depictions of people in savage and brutal decline, reminds us that there will always be those who stand against evil and who will, by sheer force of will, quality of character and moral tenacity, come out on top, no matter how great a battle they face.

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