The Obsidian Heart by Mark T Barnes

“The gift of intellect is not knowing what questions to ask, rather questioning what you are taught.”

It has taken me a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that The Garden of Stones was my most underrated novel of 2013. Don’t worry, though; Mark T Barnes’s second rings true. Not only is it a big improvement on the first, it manages to surpass most novels I’ve read this year. All from a seemingly unknown author.

Pair him and Andrez Bergen up, and you have a team of undiscovered talent.

But that’s tangents.

Compared to the first, the narrative structure is the same. Besides the obvious 3 POVs, the way Barnes dissects the two halves of the novel is in a way very much the same. We start off at a slow, very minute pace. Granted, The Obsidian Heart is much faster in this regard than its predecessor. But once we reach the halfway mark, everything goes to hell. And then we reach the 60 percent mark…and the 70. Barnes continues to crank up the action and suspense. He throws one of the best and most fitting endings for a middle novel I’ve ever read.

Is that overstatement? Probably, but I don’t care. There are very few novels I’ve EVER read that attack plot the way he does, in such a smart and risky way. That’s no exaggeration.

“The ripples of today were stones in the waters of yesterday. We form our truths from the facts of what’s gone before. You can’t separate what was from what is. You can only change what will be.”

However, because this is a second novel, Barnes has had the time to work around in his characters’ minds. This gives us a tighter look on life, a more character-oriented story. I didn’t exactly love the romantic pedaling, but luckily it wasn’t there for much.

While the worldbuilding does take a step back, I am happy to see more things happening in the world. Still, Barnes’s strong point is still his ability to craft a world and immerse you in it. And setting a scene at the beginning of anything, mostly chapters. Coupled with an amazing quote as always, the way words are strung together by his will to show how the sun is setting over the mountain or the bodies lie dead on the road is astounding.

It doesn’t have the snarky, flippant asides I usually love, but dainty verbosity is a winner when done like this. If you’re going to take the long way home, make sure to take notes from Barnes. Enjoy the scenery, even when an amenesqa comes to take your head off.

Further expounding upon a topic I made before, Barnes’s characters are the biggest improvement of the book, aside from the sharper prose and pacing. (It’s in general just a better book.)

Mari, one of the biggest problems I had with The Garden of Stones, removes her cloak of whining decisions and actually decides things. Her side is finally chosen, and I love it. She’s a hardass (in a good way) who’s a little broken and vulnerable underneath. What Barnes does is make this trope so much better, unlike The Quantum Thief or Fade to Black.  Not the epitome of a “strong” woman, but as close as I’ve seen in a good while.

Corajidin is quite possibly becoming the best POV. We delve deeper into his darkness, see the depths and atrocities he’s willing to commit, all in the name of a crown. Sometimes the end doesn’t justify the means, and it’s great to finally see a “villain” that understands this, if only hazily. His personal journey was the strongest of the three, and I can’t wait to see how Barnes elaborates on these choices in the final installment.

“It was said the victor determined the right of what they had done, yet how far was too far?”

Indris, on the other hand, took a tiny backseat to these two. He was at the forefront at book 1, but now, his character stayed roughly the same. He’s not a weak POV, I just didn’t see as much of a growth as I did his lover and enemy. Least, not until the end. That’s not to say a consistent character is bad, but his story line had less pop than the first two. Although, the one critique and fear I have of Indris is his ability to become too strong. I worry he might dwell into easy plot territory, and that’s not something I would enjoy. Would be interesting, of course, but would lose the risk I so loved in his debut.

Aside from these three characters, the supporting cast is a strong coterie. Lots of evil brewing about between these pages. Nix and Omen in particular stood out for me, if only because they’re crazy. And one spouts poetry. Yeah, I’m a sucker for supposed “deepness.”

This book was not without its problems, though. The breaks were largely unnecessary most of the time. And when Barnes cut off the chapter or break mid-sentence, well, that only works some of the time. After the tenth one, it becomes annoying. Yeah, it did well with Indris’s imprisonment and Corajidin’s failing health, but little else.

And the coronation.

It did what it set out to do symbolically. Barnes gave us a ride into the abyss, and just as we’ve reached the top, we see every dark deed was for nothing. He presents us a hollow victory with no box on the box. As I said, it worked to that effect, but I like dramatics. I felt there were ways to combine these two. Barnes didn’t. And maybe there isn’t. I can’t think of any. Then again, that’s why I’m a reviewer.

“Everybody breaks and everybody talks because everybody, everywhere, has a point beyond which they cannot endure.”

Anyway, if you haven’t noticed by now, Mark T Barnes has become one to watch out for. His second novel is one of the best of the year, both stylistically and plot-wise. If you’re looking for an intelligent Science Fantasy novel that’s different from the rest, though not too weird, then I highly recommend The Obsidian Heart. It might be another six months till we see the ending, but I have faith that’s enough time to do it justice. Only took him five to outstrip his debut.

“The message in the spherical seats was clear: power is not meant to be comfortable. One could fall as easily as one could rise.”

Rating: 8/10

Amazon US: The Obsidian Heart (Echoes of Empire)

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