Book Review: “The Obsidian Chamber”

I’ve been reading Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s “Pendergast” series of macabre-but-not-quite-supernatural thrillers for the better part of a decade – and every year, I wait eagerly for the latest installment. Last year’s “Crimson Shore” ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, intimating the return of the series’ most iconic antagonist, and “The Obsidian Chamber” picks up immediately thereafter.

(There’s a lot I could say about how this book fits into the overall Pendergast continuity, but I’m keeping this review spoiler-free.)

For sheer reading enjoyment, “Obsidian Chamber” is probably my favorite Pendergast volume since “Cold Vengeance.” Though some installments of this series have felt conceptually scattered (“The Wheel of Darkness” and “Cemetery Dance” spring to mind), here the plot bolts ahead at a breakneck pace, veering from a drug smuggling boat in the frigid North Atlantic all the way to the sun-blasted Kalahari Desert in Botswana. The relentless kineticism of certain early Pendergast novels – “Dance of Death” and “The Book of the Dead” come to mind – is on full display, and the stakes are delightfully high this time around. In particular, Constance Greene, Pendergast’s enigmatic ward, gets lots of time to shine – and for the first time, Preston and Child provide a fully satisfying look into her character.

The spectral FBI agent himself doesn’t actually take center stage until about halfway through the book – this makes sense in context (there are a lot of moving pieces in play), and feels a good deal like “Book of the Dead.” In many ways, this is a wise move – things definitely feel more dire when Pendergast isn’t around to problem-solve his way out of any situation – but it also means that a few series staples (Pendergast’s Chongg Ran memory palaces, anyone?) don’t get any time to shine.

It’s probably fair to say that the Pendergast books are hit-or-miss when it comes to their final climactic resolutions (despite consistently brilliant setups) – and frustratingly, “Obsidian Chamber” doesn’t deliver a coda that quite matches up to its gripping first and second acts. Perhaps my gut sense is wrong and “Obsidian Chamber” won’t actually be a one-off book, but actually sets up more drama to come with its antagonist; that said, the ending feels pretty conclusive where this particular villain’s story is concerned. All the pieces are there for a bang-up, gloriously brutal “Two Graves”-style finale, but instead readers get a decidedly PG-rated conclusion to an R-rated story.

As a heads-up, there are a ton of references to other installments of the Pendergast saga sprinkled throughout, so things may feel a bit foreign if you’re picking up the series midway through. Longtime Pendergast fans, though, shouldn’t – and definitely won’t – pass up “Obsidian Chamber.” Sixteen books in, Preston and Child keep bringing the goods.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
As Pendergast volumes go, “Obsidian Chamber” is a cracking good read, even if it doesn’t quite stick its landing.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 7, 2016 in Contemporary


Movie Review: “Queen of Katwe”

As a Westerner who has never visited, my mental images of sub-Saharan Africa have often included savannas filled with wildlife, violent rebel groups, and historic oppression in the Belgian Congo. I’m well aware that this perspective is horribly blinkered (recently, I’ve become particularly interested in learning more about the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a group about which I knew exactly nothing before this year), but such concepts are the stuff of most news reports circulated throughout Western media. “Queen of Katwe,” set in modern Uganda, tells a very different tale indeed. Suffused with the distinctive beauty and tragedy interwoven throughout contemporary Ugandan culture, the film is on its face a rags-to-riches chess drama, but becomes much more through its willingness to raise provocative questions about the ways in which the “developing world” is often viewed.

“Queen of Katwe” is centrally the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan chess prodigy with virtually no formal education, who succeeds through sheer genius and the efforts of a dedicated teacher (David Oyelowo, who is outstanding here). Rounding out the cast, Lupita Nyong’o turns in a solid performance as Phiona’s mother (though her character in the film feels more incidental than integral to the plot).

“Queen of Katwe” is a much, much more interesting chess film than last year’s “Pawn Sacrifice” – particularly since its narrative will likely be completely unknown to most audiences, and outcomes never feel like foregone conclusions. And as one might well expect, the movie drives home powerfully the message that rare talent can indeed be found in unexpected places. The Western viewer is thus left wondering, sober-mindedly, how many, many geniuses with the talent to transform history are undoubtedly present in the “developing world”…if only the rest of the world had eyes to see them. In an era where education and competence are increasingly assessed by ever-narrower evaluative measures, “Queen of Katwe” has the courage to upend that narrative, celebrating those who think and act “outside the box.” (As a matter of storytelling, also helps that Phiona’s inspirational journey is juxtaposed against some extremely grim thematic undercurrents, of the sort rarely seen in PG-rated films, which give the movie’s dramatic moments an uncommonly deep bite).

I’d be remiss in my critical duty if I didn’t point out that “Queen of Katwe” has some serious third-act problems—most notably a murky denouement that doesn’t have a clear climax. There are also some serious sags in the pacing that feel frustratingly digressive (a full 30 minutes of content could’ve probably been cut without compromising the storytelling). In short, “Queen of Katwe” could’ve done with some more severe editing.

That being said, “Queen of Katwe” is both engrossing and thought-provoking – and well worth a trip to the cinema, if it’s playing in your area. Recommended.

A strikingly engaging and original, if occasionally overambitious, chess drama.

Normalized Score: 3.4

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: