Book Review: Obscura by Joe Hart
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (May 8, 2018)
Length: 348 pages
Combining elements from science fiction and thriller-suspense, Joe Hart brings us a gripping tale set in the not-too-distant future where a new form of dementia known as Losian’s Disease is sweeping across the globe, affecting both the old and the young. No one knows the cause, but as the widow and the mother of Losian sufferers, Dr. Gillian Ryan is determined to find a cure. She has already lost her husband, and she’s not about to lose her little girl too. But even as a leading researcher of the disease, Gillian has to show results to continue receiving funding, and unfortunately she has not been making much headway in her work. Desperate to keep her research going, she lets her old friend Carson talk her into taking part in a top-secret NASA mission to examine a space station crew that has been affected by symptoms similar to Losian’s, even if being in space will take her away from her daughter for six months. But if it will save her research and get her closer to finding a cure, Gillian convinces herself that it will be worth it.
However, her journey to space is plagued by problems from the start. Not only has Carson not been completely forthright with her on the details of the mission, there appears to be a saboteur on board, and it appears he or she will go to great lengths to damage NASA’s work—including resorting to murder. As the violence mounts, Gillian finds herself the main suspect as the evidence against her becomes more and more damning. She tries telling the others that she is being framed, that she is innocent—but after a while, even she is beginning to doubt herself. With all the lies and deception surrounding her, as well as the effects of withdrawal, isolation, and being far from home, it is difficult to be certain of anything anymore.
Mysteries set in space—especially those involving murder—always have a certain appeal to me. Usually these stories are set in a small confined area, emphasizing the loneliness and claustrophobic atmosphere. The number of suspects is often limited as well, but because of everyone’s close proximity, it always makes the tension feel much more present and urgent. Joe Hart uses these elements to great effect in Obscura, deftly evoking the feelings of terror and paranoia in his main protagonist. There’s nothing more disturbing than doubting your own sanity, and in this way, Gillian is pushed to the extremes at every turn.
Speaking of which, the characterization of Gillian is fantastic. Hart sets up her background perfectly, painting a picture of a grieving widow and loving mother who has already lost so much to Losian’s Disease. Finding a cure to save her daughter is the goal that drives her, and it’s also the only thing she would sacrifice everything for. She is also under a lot of stress, and has been secretly relying on heavy prescription drugs to get her through, ultimately becoming addicted. Being away from her little girl is bad enough, but when she finds out that she has been deceived—not once, but multiple times—to get her to agree to the mission, that is the last straw. I really felt for her character then, sympathizing with her anger, regret, and frustration. And then came the murder. Gillian might not always make the best decisions, but she feels genuinely like someone who is trying all she can to get out of a bad situation, especially when everyone seems to be against her. She’s terrified and uncertain of herself, but still she refuses to give up.
The plot also makes this novel a page-turner. Just when you think you have everything figured out, Hart throws a curve ball and the story takes a different turn. There are a lot of surprises not mentioned in the publisher description, and I had a great time discovering all of them. Let’s just say I was under the impression that Obscura was more of a straight-up thriller, and I was delighted when it turned out there are actually way more science fiction elements in this book than I thought.
My only criticism is that there might be too many ideas in this book, so that sometimes the plot felt a little fractured and disjointed. I can’t go into much detail without revealing spoilers, but there are a few concepts that aren’t explained very well, and plot points that aren’t as well developed. However, Obscura is still first and foremost a thriller and not a hard sci-fi novel, so in a way, this was to be expected. As long as these shortcomings didn’t affect the overall excitement and flow of the story, I didn’t really mind too much, and the good news is, no one can fault the book’s thriller and mystery aspects. The author did an excellent job of building up the suspense, and then capped it all off with a completely engrossing climax and conclusion.
All in all, Obscura is a fine example of an effective sci-fi thriller, hooking the reader with an intriguing premise. The wonderful characterization and swiftly-paced plot successfully pulled me in the rest of the way, the suspenseful atmosphere capturing my full attention and keeping me riveted, wondering what will happen next.