What a journey it’s been, right?
It started off in August 2021, with a deadly and merciless contest to save the planet. Then it took us (supposedly) thousands of years back in time, to find out how and why such contests are held in the first place. And the long-term effect (trust me, a very long one) they have on the champions, the people who ended up saving their own planet by winning the game. As long as you can call it a win, because as we learn as we get a peek behind the scenes, the price is steep, even though an eternal life might look like a good fate to someone.
The first two books in a series did an amazing job in setting up a world from a quite common trope and expanding it in a peculiar way. This means that there was only one thing left to do: give it a satisfying finale. Yes, I’m one of those people who actually like series to end eventually, painful as it might seem at first. All good things come to an end, and part of the bond we feel for them comes to the fact that we know they’re not eternal.
This time I was expecting JD Edwin to surprise me, to deliver a story I hadn’t thought about given what I knew about the first two books, but I had no clue how could she do that. Headspace and Master of the Arena are extremely different from each other in story and pacing, and I didn’t know whether the third instalment was going to lie in the middle of the two or if it was going to push things even further. Now that I’ve read it, I can say I’d place it outside the straight line connecting the previous two chapters. We live in a three- ok, a four-dimensional world after all, why stick to straight lines?
It’s the kind of book where it’s easy to see the nuts and bolts of novel writing, as the events in the book flow according to the expected plot points of the genre. But as much as you see those gears, they never ruin the experience in reading it. There are books that work because they’re built to work, but their being formulaic completely spoils the experience for me: Orb Hunters (as well as its predecessors), managed to mask the storytelling gears behind a layer of emotions and surprise.
Ok, are you gonna talk about the book now or what?
Excuse me for this long introduction, especially for this digression about space and straight lines. No matter how much I try to hide my science-girl background, it always comes out uninvited.
“Orb Hunters” starts off on the planet Fiina, which I pictured to be very similar to Earth aside from the fact that its inhabitants are born ungendered. As grown-ups, they decide whether they want to live as males or females and whether they want to marry males, females, or both. I wonder what the nice lady who gave Headspace a one-star review because it referred to a character with they/them pronouns would think about it.
Fiinian society looks so advanced and open-minded to my eyes, but still Kova, the protagonist, feels stuck without even knowing why. They’re regarded with great consideration out of being one of the very few people with natural red hair in a world where white is the most common hair color. Kova also had a rebellious twin sister named Rosi (one of the very few people born gendered) with a knack for upsetting their mother: as a mysterious orb arrives on Fiina, Rosi is among the people who vanish out of thin air.
This is where I feel like I should stop with the synopsis to avoid spoiling the experience of reading it for you, because just like its two predecessors Orb Hunters deserve all the time you spend reading it.
The idea of wasted potential that just doesn’t go away
The rest of the family moves on pretty quickly, except for Kova, who decides to grow up as a woman, much to the surprise of her family. We see her as a grown up, stuck in a life that was supposed to be easy for her given her gifts, but that day after day it resembles more and more like a prison where she can’t help but let down any expectation.
And I have to say that it struck a nerve. I’ve said a few times that, having lived the 90s as a kid, I somehow internalised an optimistic message about how life was going to be for us millennials. Everything told us that we were the lucky ones, that we were going to have opportunities no one had ever had before. That those opportunities were going to somehow “happen”, and that it was up to us to take advantage of them.
Then my generation grew up, and looking back I couldn’t help but realize how shallow those promises were. But the realization isn’t enough to make me immune from a sense of uncertainty and failure. It feels that either we failed a test, or we were given unrealistic expectations as kids, and I don’t know which one feels worse, to be honest.
All this to say that I related to Kova’s existential restlessness more than I’d hoped to, I saw a lot of myself in her as she felt that there has to be something more. And the obsession for finding answers about Rosi will ultimately prompt Kova, now grown up and just married, to enter a mysterious capsule and to leave Fiina for good.
The second part of the book feels like a reunion with old friends, even though you can see a sense of decay and abandon in the universe. Again, it kind of agrees with my idea of eternity, but it still was impressive to see how real it felt even though it was only described through words.
The spark of light in the dark wasteland
Maintaining a stubborn optimism no matter how dire the situation is has always looked forced to me, a way to hide your head in the sand to pretend you’re not seeing the bad around you. As if it was enough to make it go away.
Still, as I get wiser and older, I feel like we as people need the slightest spark of hope to cling on if we want to keep our sanity. And that little spark is always present in Orb Hunter. Seems counterintuitive, but I felt it more than in Headspace and Master of the Arena.
I saw the universe because of you. It’s so big. Thanks for showing meOrb Hunters, J.D. Edwin
There is a line in the book that broke me as I read it, and it’s the one I just mentioned above. I won’t give context about it, nice try, but let me just say how beautiful it felt. It expressed the feeling about finding that little something that pushes you to do the unimaginable.
If you think about it, all three of the books in the series convey the idea of finding a place in the Universe, even though the three protagonists start off from lives quite different from each other. They only have one thing in common: being stuck in that ordinary life.
Astra is a prisoner of her eternal indecision, so much that she doesn’t even sign up herself for the games that end up freeing her. Nas is a pariah to the eyes of her own family because of something she’s born with. Kova is at the opposite extreme of the spectrum, as she’s highly valued in her family and society but is haunted by the feeling of being a failure.
And all three of them find what they’re missing once they receive the little nudge that put them in a challenging enough situation. They escape their own prison and find a place to be, a chosen family, a purpose for their own life. I like how their journey is not nice and easy in the slightest, and how they come to the realisation about their own life much later.
Sometimes we’re too focused on where we’re going and tend to forget that the journey is actually what takes you to your destination. And that roadblocks and changes of plan happen, leaving the journey as the only certain thing.
And as I said, what a journey it’s been.