Review: Obsidian: Awakening by Sienna Frost

Obsidian: Awakening

Series: Obsidian, #1

Author: Sienna Frost

Genre: Historical Fantasy (Grimdark)

Blurb:

A war fought for peace.

A former slave who trades away his freedom.

An oracle tormented by his visions.

A wife who lives to kill her husband.

A half blood son born from hatred.

A tyrant who fights for unity.

A girl destined to end the war.

A sadistic bitch called Fate who breaks them all.

Seven broken heroes, born on both sides of the war between an empire and a nomadic race of the desert, must survive being tossed into the midst of chaos and forced to decide what they treasure more: loyalty to their lands, or what they hold dearest to their hearts.

DISCLAIMER: The name of this series, “Obsidian,” is derived from the rock that must first be broken to form a weapon. This is, therefore, a grimdark tale of people who choose to break like obsidian. It is not a light read for anyone who needs trigger warnings of any kind, and is written for a specific audience who enjoys grimdark stories, with no incorruptible heroes in sight and no promise of a happy, fulfilling ending. Please refrain from reading if you need these elements in a story.

Rating: Unforgettable, Thoughtful, Heart-provoking

The First/Short Review (I try not spoil it in this one):

I was kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed Obsidian: Awakening. I have not been wanting to read a lot that is very dark and even pessimistic and miserable. There are a lot of things that I heard about Obsidian that made me interested. It’s very character-driven, by an author who refuses to tone anything down or to follow any patterns or plot devices or advice that does not fit her story (after all, life does not fit into a preconceived format like some novels are written to). So I expected to like that, and I expected from something labeled “grimdark” – and rightfully. The author’s disclaimer is absolutely not toned down. Obsidian: Awakening is every bit as dark, with every bit as much horror and brokenness in it, maybe more, than the disclaimer would suggest (of course, no disclaimer could capture the fullness of it.

Obsidian: Awakening did not disappoint on that. The story is as real as one could hope for, very much in part because the characters are very people-like, making their own decisions and choices, wherever those lead. It’s also very dark, and the author describes it as being about people who choose to keep fighting in the worst of circumstances, even when they have no hope – about keeping on going without hope.

So I was very much surprised to enjoy reading it as much as I did and find that it did not do to me what I expected from something labeled “grimdark” – and rightfully. The author’s disclaimer is absolutely not toned down. Obsidian: Awakening is every bit as dark, with every bit as much horror and brokenness in it, maybe more, than the disclaimer would suggest (of course, no disclaimer could capture the fullness of it).

I think that, part of why I enjoyed Awakening so much, apart from all the various characters with their realistic complexities, is that while it certainly is not about hope as in the expectation that the heroes will eventually get what they strive for (at least, without tearing lives and hearts apart even farther and causing more destruction and misery) is that it lacks the hopelessness of the modern Western world-view with regards specifically to death, that saturates almost everything else I can find. It was a breath of fresh air to read Awakening with its very different perspective on life and death and hope. Awakening accepts death as a part of living, to be fully embraced. One does not live by shying from the reality of death or the fact that it might happen to one – or those one loves – at any time and that, one day, it will happen to all of us. For me, Awakening embodied so much of what I call hope that I do not see very often. Not hope that we can make this world a better place. Something else, something deeper than that, something that holds up when that fails.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about Obsidian: Awakening was how complex and real – and even heroic – the characters are. None of them are simply evil. They’re all so broken and twisted and messed up in so many ways, and all of them are just aching to be loved and accepted and known in a way they’ve never been able to experience, even if they don’t know it. There’s a huge amount of reality and depth to the characters, their feelings, their experiences, their motivations and their decision. I really appreciated and enjoyed that. They pulled me into their feelings and experiences even when I definitely did not agree with their actions, attitudes, or approaches! Which was some, but not all, of the time. Sometimes, I thrilled with something is the precise opposite of disagreement!

More coming, but trying to talk in detail about the characters and how they made me feel and what I thought about them without so-called spoilers is not something I care to attempt! I wish to note that one of the wonders of the novel is the author is able to make the characters so real, make me know them so well, that I very often don’t need to write an individual’s perspective to experience it.

The Real Review (We don’t believe in spoilers, here):

Muradi –

From a distance, the Salar of Rasharwi is nothing more than a monster, a tyrant who slaughters and who uses every available weapon of manipulation and torment to get what he wants. He is despicable and abhorrent, intent only on conquest and power, at any cost, at any depravity.… Until one gets closer

Muradi is, in many ways, a broken man. Thrown as a child into a prison of depravity and torture, none of the atrocities this man who rode with his troops to conquer the Vilarhiti, commands or commits with his own hands rival the things he saw, suffered, feared, endured. He may be a monster. He may be an inexcusable monster. It might even be impossible to sympathize with his choices and his path, but he suffered more than anyone should ever have to. In many ways, his monstrosities are the ways he survived and copes with the horrors he was made to endure. Fear, suffering, loss, these things eat at his soul and have made him what he is. He is desperately, painfully, beautifully human, and there is even nobility left, deep inside, obscured by all the vile things he has endured and how he dealt with them, and all the vile things he has done, sometimes in the name of that last remnant of nobility. My heart ached for him, and all I wanted to do was embrace him and let him know that someone loved him, with a love that has nothing to do with sex, accepted him, would die for him – but would not obey him or submit to him.

Zahara –

Zahara is the Shaksi Bharavi of the White Desert that Muradi captured when he took the Vilarhiti. It is hard to capture her personality and her attitude in words. Even in the prologue so much happens. Muradi is such that she thinks that she might love him as a partner in another world, with other pasts and other circumstances. As it is, they are mortal foes, yet forced to live together. With the first words that pass their mouths, their relationship is already so complex. I really don’t know what to say. I’ll let a few quotes speak for me.

When Muradi first asks her name:

She drew a breath and straightened. “I see no reason why you need to know.”

And a few moments later again:

So you do speak Rashai,” he said at length, looking at her with keen interest.

She resisted the urge to bite her lip. No point in denying it. He had asked for her name in Rashai and she had responded without thinking. “I speak four languages,” she replied in Samarran. …. She had, after all, thrown in some difficult words on purpose for a chance to see that arrogance being subdued a little.

It didn’t touch him. Not even a little.

“What does jamanya mean?” he asked with casual curiosity, in the way one might inquire a cook on the ingredients he used.

Or here again:

It came up out of her without thinking, thrown together by the shame of having allowed herself to be played by her enemy––the response she would have considered unwise had she been more calm and composed, only now she found she couldn’t stop, “You are just as foul and as despicable as your men, that is what I think of you.”

And here:

He flipped the knife over and offered it to her by the handle. “Here’s a chance to prove your point. Take the knife, bury it into your own heart or in mine. Decide again, as deliberately as before, how willing you are to spend the lives of those people based purely on what you believe in. Do you think they still want to live, now that they are my prisoners? Isn’t that why I will never be able to take the White Desert? Because all of them would rather die than live without your so-called freedom?” Cold, hard eyes stared at her as he pushed the knife closer to her hand. “Show me, Bharavi, how strongly you believe that to be true.” … What if she was wrong? What if all they wanted was peace and prosperity, or a chance to live free from the fear of being raided, of not enough food and water, for children to grow up safe and sound behind walls? Who was she to decide that they were no longer her people to protect if they became Rashais, that eight thousand lives were worthless, the moment they stopped representing her ideals?

I cannot adequately say what I feel and think reading it … I struggle even where to cut the quotes.

Hasheem –

Hasheem is a Shaksi captive. Or was. He has been through a lot, including prostitution, before becoming a first-class assassin and protégé of Deo di Amara. His story begins when a woman he loved in some way hangs herself in his bedroom when she cannot take the abuse of her marriage anymore, and Hasheem takes into his hands to assassinate (and one wonders if some torture preceded the assassination?) the man who abused her. He expects Deo di Amara to kill him, but instead Deo di Amara points him in the direction of the White Desert and abets his escape. For Hasheem, life has been a serious of circumstances that force him into situations where he is offered the choice to die or give up more of his freedom, and he keeps on giving up more of his freedom, not because he is a coward, and he always wonders how he will regret his decision. This time, he ends up with the choice to be killed by the Shaksis or to become Djari’s sworn sword and blood, per the suggestion of Nazir, Djari’s brother. The antagonism and hostility between them gradually turns into something more, even as Hasheem experiences the life of the Shaksis of the White Desert and sees that his people by birth are, in many ways, very much the same as the Rashais, capable of committing a lot of atrocities and being downright monsters, with a society that supports some of these horrors. And what is he?

Djari –

Djari is another Bharavi, the daughter of Zain izr Husar, a kha’a of the White Desert. Her life and personality are heart-breaking and compelling. It’s impossible to fit a word or two to describe her values and personality. She is proud, tender and hard, tough but almost brittle. What develops between her and Hasheem, from the moment she shoots him, is compelling. She is excellence, but she is also tragic. I can’t describe her any better than any of the others. But her life is heart-breaking, and yet she compels admiration that goes far beyond that little word.

Nazir –

Nazir is Djari’s brother, a khumar and a full oracle. His visions are numerous and accurate, but he does not always see enough to do anything about them, except suffer. He is tender and loving towards Djari, wishing to spare her as much as he can. His life is overwhelmed with an anguish that compels sympathy, as he has seen so much of the future, far more than any man ought to have to see, robbing him of so much of life. Especially as there is no what might be considered complacence in his attitude and upbringing. At the same time, there are some things about the way he reacts to this knowledge that makes him the least sympathetic character in my opinion. His affair with Baaku is so redeeming, but it does not go far enough. In some ways, it makes what he expects to become, what he fully determines to be, even more monstrous. Seeing what he does, being what it is, it’s hard for me to come to terms with his resolutions to do things monstrous if they are what is “required.”

Zain izr Husari –

Nazir and Djari’s father, Zain was not born to be a kha’a. He mutually fell in love with their mother, a Bharavi, and killed so he could be with her and be the kha’a instead of the then-current kha’a to whom she was pledged. She was the light of his life, and since her death at the hands of the Rashais, there has been something he’s never had again. It’s sweet and heart-breaking and admirable, but his response to her loss is monstrous: he slaughters and burns three villages. That has left scars on Djari, as well as the way he has changed has affected both of them.

Baaku –

Baaku is Nazir’s lover, and another khumar of another kha’gan that is hostile to Nazir’s. Their affair is a secret violation, and it’s not simple. They need each other, and they love each other, but even with Baaku – perhaps especially with Baaku, though he is Nazir’s one refuge from his visions – the torment of Nazir’s visions is with him. Baaku’s loyalty to Nazir is heart-wrenching. I don’t have the words I need for this.

Lasura –

Lasura is the son of Salar Muradi and Zahara; half Rashai, half Shaksi. Both his parents want to mold him into their image of what he should be, without any consideration for whether he has a reason to be that, for who he is. He is caught in the cross-hairs of their hatred and their war. Mostly, he just tries to stay in the background, not get involved in others’ fights and power struggles, and live. He does not know who he is or what he wants. Sometimes, Muradi seems to love him, but both his parents alienate him from themselves but trying to force him onto their side of the war of which one battleground is their ‘marriage’. But no one can go through life never having made any choices …

Ghaul –

Ghaul is Muradi’s only truly trusted companion. Their loyalty to each other transcends everything else, and is not subject to questions. They know each other as they know no one else; they are almost parts of each other. Ghaul came through the prison of Sabha where he was thrown as a child with Muradi, and there and ever since they’ve been what they are.

Skies, I’m re-reading Obsidian: Awakening as I write this, and my words are far, far too shallow. They don’t even touch the surface, let alone scratch it, of any of these characters. Right now, I’m almost hating the attempt to describe them at all. It’s so inadequate.

But I will share a few quotes, and perhaps some of my thoughts on them and the people involved.

Djari and Nazir

“There are certain privileges to not knowing that makes life worth living, Djari,” he reminded her. “My vision is not for you or anyone to carry. It is my burden and mine alone.”

Djari, thinking of Nazir (and her horse).

She’d stopped thinking of it as a privilege after that, and had always tried to forgive him afterward when he refused to share those visions with her. She knew her brother, however, and she had her intuition. There was a reason he’d decided to hold back Lady’s fate until today, and guilt was why he had come.

Hasheem

And he’d done it, as instructed. He’d killed Aziz. At Sabha, you did what you were told especially if you hadn’t been through life long enough to grow a spine.

Lasura

My people?‘ It had slipped out of him before he could stop himself, the words he’d been trying to hold back for her sake, words he might have still been able to swallow had he not been so drunk, so tired from the climb. ‘There are four Shakshis I’ve known in my life, four, and half of them would rather see me dead.’ Yes, dead. His own mother and her handmaiden to be exact. ‘The Black Tower is my home, Rasharwi is my city, he is my father as much as you are my mother and for the very least he wants me to live! As far as I’m concerned, it was your part of my blood that has dragged me through all kinds of shit in this Tow—’

Lasura again:

You have your plans for me too, haven’t you, Father? Just as she has. That is all you see, isn’t it? A key to your victory? A weapon to prove her wrong? A tool to get you what you want?

They were all the same, every last one of them.

Nazir

What, indeed, were they to fight for if not for these things? Small pleasures that made life worth living. The freedom to make choices even if it might lead to an undesirable outcome. Is life not measured by how it was lived rather than how it ended or how long it lasted? Was it so wrong for him to seek some meanings to his life besides what it meant to others?

We may die tomorrow for all I know, Baaku had said, his face softened in the dim light of the tent. I don’t want to die not having done this.’

He remembered his own words then, also the beating of his own heart. ‘You could also die doing this, Baaku.’

Baaku had shrugged and smiled. ‘Can’t think of a better reason to die if you ask me.’

Nazir had known then, as he made those five steps toward their first time together, how powerless he was against the hands of Fate or whatever gods who had drawn a line for them to meet, only to have things end up the way they were now or were going to end in the future. The vision of Baaku’s death had also come at that precise moment, when a space so large, so permanent in his heart had been seized and occupied by this man without his consent.

Baaku

I don’t give a fuck if your father wants to kill mine,’ he’d said the first time Nazir found him in his tent one night. ‘Our people are free because we’re free to fight, free to decide if we want to live or die. If we can’t go where we want to go, love who we want to love, then tell me, what the hell are we fighting for?’

Zahara’s thoughts

She also remembered how Muradi had stood in the middle of the rubble, in a field burnt to ashes littered with corpses you could no longer recognize, staring down at a charred figure of a mother holding her child as though it had been someone he knew, and had seemed to forget she was there entirely.

Muradi

Just because they were his blood, did it give them more right to live than someone else’s? Does it make him more of a monster to kill his own child than that of another man’s? You would have to be a self-absorbed, entitled hypocrite to measure a life that way. Logic and simple mathematics were the only way to justify killing.

Sarasef about Hasheem

To Sarasef, the boy was an embodiment of everything they had lost that should have been saved. The only thing that separated men from the beasts they had all chosen to become in the fight for survival. There had always been fight in that boy when you beat him, hope when there had been no room for hope, compassion even for those who had broken him to pieces. Hasheem had never been naive, no, not even as a young boy. He knew the world for what it was and men for the monsters they could become. He simply believed the alternatives were possible. That there were rooms yet, for things to change.

Djari

One could live with some justifications for causing death when it had to do with vengeance or self-preservation, and expect a measurement of forgiveness from oneself or others. But there was no justification for killing in the name of mercy, not to her. Living, no matter how painful, was the embodiment of hope, and hope was what they needed to end the war, to carry on traditions, to offer peace to the next generations. She would choose to live even with every joy and freedom taken from her. … If she could live with that, why couldn’t her mare?

I pray the author doesn’t mind my shameless quotations. Part of me wants to quote the whole book! Quotations just aren’t the same out of context, and the characters are so rich, the story so layered and complex! I can’t write the words for it; the author already did and they are those that comprise the novel Obsidian: Awakening. Nothing can be taken away from it; it can not be summarized and remain what it is.

But I wanted to touch on a few more things. I can’t say they stood out to me, because the whole book did, but I have to touch on them in more detail, even though I’m going to hate every word I write.

Jarem. There is something so touching about Jarem’s loyalty to Muradi and his dedication to his Salasar. His purpose to do whatever he must for Muradi, even if there’s the very real risk that he will be misunderstood and executed by the same. His heart-breaking hope that, maybe, Muradi can trust him. That he can be the one exception to the rule that Muradi trusts no one but Ghaul, lets no one but Ghaul truly close to him.

No words, no descriptions for emotions describe that moment when Muradi learns of what Jarem is doing behind his back. Of when Muradi asks Jarem if he will not ask for forgiveness. Of Jarem’s words that he would not advise forgiveness. That how can Muradi think so little of him that he would expect that plea? ‘Those who ask for forgiveness do not deserve it.’ Then Jarem’s realization that he failed Muradi, in not asking forgiveness. That at the opportunity to gain that trust with Muradi, Jarem did not trust Muradi or act trustworthy, and instead went and did something out of that desire… More on this later. Then his last thoughts that he had no regrets to serve this man. And the way Muradi breaks at killing Jarem. Muradi’s already broken. And what this means to him cannot be described.

Zahara is being set upon by a mob who would burn her. There’s always been hostility between them. Muradi loves her in a way he’s loved no one else, her and Lasura, and he’s tried to deny it, then to tear them out of his life. Now, corrupted by hate and brokennness and atrocities as that love is, he’s come face to face with it. He tells his men they won’t keep him from the streets, from trying to rescue his wife, and if they wish to, he’ll kill them. Ghaul, his friend, stands between him, tells him that he will be the first Muradi has to kill.

‘You might as well kill me,’ Muradi tells him. ‘That is my heart they are trying to burn.’

And so they go to rescue Zahara. And so many of them die, but Muradi and Ghaul fight through mob and smoke to the pyre where she’s about to die, and she barely glimpses them through the smoke, and there, as he frees her, Muradi takes three arrows and loses the Salasar. It’s heart-wrenching and beautiful.

Then in a cave, there’s Ghaul and Muradi and Zahara. Somehow, the arrows in Muradi are unpoisoned, but Zahara fully intends to see her vow through to the end and watch him die. Of course, Ghaul would save him if he could. And Muradi tells Ghaul to leave him … ostensibly to get food, water, and firewood, but everyone knows it’s to let Zahara kill him.

And Ghaul kisses the hem of his cloak farewell and goes … I said I’d get back to something about Jarem later. This is the place where Jarem’s loyalty and Ghaul’s are more juxtaposed. Ghaul knows Muradi and is loyal to those deepest desires … whatever they mean to Ghaul. His loyalty is to Muradi himself, not anything else. Jarem is truly, honestly loyal, but he is loyal more to his understanding of what is good for the Salar than to Muradi’s deepest personhood. He meant to have Zahara killed, seeing her as Muradi’s weakness.

Then the scene that follows between Zahara and Muradi. Even though it’s Zahara’s perspective, one feels them both so heart-wrenchingly. Muradi’s pain. Muradi’s desire. Muradi’s need. Even Muradi’s love. And yet the torment he has inflicted on Zahara. I can’t describe it. There’s such a balance – no, something for which balance is emphatically the wrong word – as one feels both their perspectives, both their desires, fears, agonies so, so truly, at once. Each tugs one’s heart fully, without division. It is a masterpiece. Before she lets him live at the last moment.

I want to talk about other places. About Djari and Hasheem. About Nazir and Baaku. And more. But this review is already outrageously long. They deserve to be touched on as much as Ghaul and Jarem and Muradi and Zahara did, but I can’t do everyone justice here. I haven’t done anyone justice here.

Something I want to reiterate, however, is that I think the only reason I could endure – and more than that, enjoy to the fullest – this novel is because of the way death and life are treated. It’s a fundamental assumption, so deep-seated and near the bottom that it’s impossible to categorize, yet it’s there and it changes the whole tone of the novel, what the killing, the fatalism, the despair, what all of it means. It’s one of those things too deep to be said, yet that changes everything so radically the change cannot be described either.

I would also like to say that I think this story is about empathy. The author has said it’s about human shit, I think. About humans who think they’re heroes being monsters. It is that. Fully and without room for debate. And in just the same way, it is about the humanity that lies within even the darkest of monsters. About the humanity, corrupted and twisted by something inhuman, by fears and horrors, but still at least a glimmer of humanity, that lies within the monsters and is even why they are the monsters they are. It is about empathy. It is about humanity. It is about the fact that even monsters are human, and they are the monsters they are because they’re human. And that is something I really, really loved about it. Maybe it is the thing I loved about it.

The world could do with a lot more empathy. A lot more sympathy. And if that can’t be managed, at least the acknowledge of it.

Each one of these characters, even in their darkest moments, screams the need for acceptance and love, for a world that will beckon them into being who they’re meant to be, who they are in the deepest part of them, instead of dragging them into a quagmire where they twist themselves out of all recognition into the torment of hell. Yet the humanity, tortured and twisted and anguished but still humanity, that lingers and hangs on and is why even their darkest, most monstrous deeds happen, screams that they can be redeemed. Maybe not in their world, in their lives, but within their hearts, within who they are, that possibility is still there, however faintly it burns.

And I have to add one more thing, even though I said I was not going to, since for some reason this last paragraph brought it to mind. There’s a scene where Djari and Hasheem are both captured, and Djari is raped. And one of the things about it is that Hasheem doesn’t flinch from her pain. He watches, holds her gaze if/as he can. To be with her in her pain, in her violation. Even if she’s alone, she’s not alone. His suffering reaches out to hold hers. Comparisons are unnecessary. And I’m going to stop right here, before I go too far, because I think I could write a book about Faye’s book, and I don’t really want to do that.

Sienna/Faye’s Website

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