Before launching into my review of the third and final volume of the Illuminae Files, I would like to share a detail of my “history” with this series: since most, if not all, of my reading happens through ebooks, I acquired the first two installments of the series in that format, and although I enjoyed the story immensely I was also aware that the peculiar narrative form chosen by the authors – which includes memos, transcripts, graphics and even sentences deployed in strange and convoluted patterns – did not work as well on an e-reader as it would on a printed page. For this reason I also bought the physical books for Illuminae and Gemina to see what I had missed, and once the date of publication for Obsidio was announced, I decided to directly acquire the physical book and read the story in the… old-fashioned way. And it was indeed a good decision, because this is an amazing way of telling a story.
Please be aware that this review might contain spoilers for the first two books: if you have not read them, don’t go any further!
Obsidio closes the circle that started in Illuminae with the assault on the mining colony of Kerenza, perpetrated by BeiTech Corporation against what they deemed an illegal operation: in the first book we followed the survivors of the attack as they attempted to flee on a handful of ships to reach the Heimdall transit station; the second volume focused on BeiTech’s attempt to eliminate them, and therefore any witness to the massacre, by taking control of Heimdall. Here, the few who escaped both assaults – now crowded aboard the very stressed-out Hypatia and the newly acquire Mao – have decided that going back to Kerenza is the only viable choice, which becomes all the more imperative once they learn that BeiTech intends to kill the remaining miners on the planet once they have extracted the precious hermium that is the planet’s main resource, leaving no trace of their heinous crime.
All the characters we encountered along the road are present here: Kady and Ezra, Hanna and Nik and Nik’s cousin Ella, as well as the other people (those still alive, that is…) who shared their journey. Their trials on the crowded ships, their plans for the coming battle and their hopes and fears act as a counterpoint to the events on Kerenza itself, where we make the acquaintance of Asha Grant (Kady’s cousin) and her ex boyfriend Rhys, now one of the BeiTech “ground pounders” from the occupying force. I must say that I found the planet-bound sections quite fascinating, both in terms of narrative impact and of character exploration: even though the previous relationship between the two youngsters feels a little convenient (in my opinion it would have worked just as well if they had been complete strangers), it helps in highlighting the dire situation of the miners on one side and of the soldiers on the other, showing how extreme circumstance can bring to the surface both the best and the worst in human beings.
The miners know their life expectancy is limited, and are doing their best to try and draw out that timeline in the hope of rescue, as improbable as it might look, so that we can witness acts of courage and self sacrifice as well as foolish choices driven by rage, despair and the burning need for vengeance. The BeiTech soldiers, for their part, range from the “just following orders” kind – some of them even enjoying the power of life and death they are given over their victims – to those who are painfully aware of the atrocities they are committing, but are unable to act differently because they know any kind of defiance would be futile. There are some scenes where these soldiers try to forget the unpleasantness of their duties by spending time in endless card games interspersed with heavy banter, but one can somehow feel the desperate effort this is, and in some way perceive the humanity that the robot-like armor encasing them cannot completely conceal.
As fascinating as all of the above was, the events transpiring aboard the ship headed for Kerenza were the ones that drew my more intense focus, because they mixed the efforts at survival with the frantic plans to overcome BeiTech’s stranglehold on Kerenza – a David vs. Goliath kind of struggle that was fraught with uncertainty and the ever-present awareness of potential failure. The young people who were at the center of previous events, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly and make harrowing choices, here must wage a war on two fronts: one represented by the might of BeiTech and its aggressive power, and one represented by several adults who are unable – or unwilling – to give them the credit they are due and still view them as children, underestimating them and forcing them to prove themselves time and again. This thread adds a very frustrating element to the story, but also one that was both electrifying and suspenseful.
And last but not least I must mention AIDAN, the insane, murderous AI with a conscience (much as that might appear as a contradiction!) who despite the horrible acts of the past, and the present, keeps growing in his understanding and acceptance of human emotions. There is a section, here in Obsidio, where AIDAN makes a hard choice that is both appalling and necessary, fully aware of the consequences but also aware that not to act would be a worse option:
And in the end, I suppose it will not matter what they name me. […] And it does not matter what they believe. […] I am not good. Nor am I evil. I am no hero. Nor am I villain. I am AIDAN.
It’s a bleak choice, and the dispassionate (?) way in which AIDAN observes it stresses even more the AI’s loneliness, one that never fails to tug at my heart because – no matter how many deaths he’s responsible for – AIDAN strikes me as the proverbial child looking into a warm home from the outside cold, knowing that he will never be part of it. The fact I have used “he” and not “it” to speak about AIDAN is a clear indication of what I feel about this character and his journey, one that should be discovered on its own…
As the conclusive book in what has been an electrifying trilogy, Obsidio works quite well and manages to keep the suspense and uncertainty about the outcome until the very end, and if it cheats a little in one particular regard (spoiler territory, so I apologize for being cryptic), I can forgive it in the name of the amazing narrative tension that carried me from start to finish.