Every time Nolan Santiago closes his eyes in Arizona, he opens them in another world. There, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a mute servant tasked with protecting Cilla, a renegade princess threatened by a terrible curse. Though Amara doesn’t know it, Nolan has been bound to her his whole life, a silent passenger who nonetheless sees her thoughts and feels her pain as though they were his own. Nolan’s family think he has epilepsy, seizures and hallucinations, but no matter how many pills he takes, Amara remains real. Until, suddenly, a new medication gives Nolan the power to take over Amara’s body. For the first time, he can communicate with the Dunelands – and with Amara. But Amara has enough problems without learning about Nolan: her life is a misery of torture and servitude, she doesn’t know how to feel about Cilla, and the assassins chasing them are closing in. How can Nolan help with that? And why does Amara’s master, Jorn, seem suddenly to be in league with Cilla’s enemies?
This is going to be a review in three parts: a spoiler-free overview, some spoilery analysis, and a spoiler-free conclusion – because, as you may have guessed, Otherbound is a tricky book to discuss without giving away the ending. Or so I found it to be, though others may not – it’s very much a Your Mileage May Vary issue.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
Otherbound is a tense, well-written debut with a lot to recommend it. Duyvis manages the transitions between Nolan’s POV and Amara’s with skill and care, which makes for a quick read – but not, crucially, a simple one. In very different ways, Amara and Nolan are both trapped in realities not of their choosing: Nolan literally so, as his ties to Amara make it impossible for him to live a normal life, and Amara by the horrific strictures of her life as a servant. Not only was her tongue cut out as a child, so that most of her speech is in sign language, but she is regularly subject to extreme violence on account of her healing magic. Years ago, Cilla – the princess Amara serves – was cursed by her enemies, so that every time her blood touches the air, the surrounding environment rises up to crush and kill her. Whenever this happens, Amara’s job is to thwart and confuse the curse by smearing Cilla’s blood on her skin and taking the punishment – which would otherwise prove fatal – in her place. Worse still, her master, Jorn, sometimes vents his frustrations by beating or torturing Amara: he knows she’ll heal, and so has no problem with with cutting, burning or drowning her.
Duyvis writes so smoothly, and the pacing is so strong, that once I picked up the book, I was readily immersed in the world
And heal Amara does, though the psychological cost remains. But Nolan, who feels her pain in tandem, lacks that gift. Years ago, Amara’s pain caused him to fall in the road, where his leg was crushed by a passing truck. Now, he uses a prosthesis, which further restricts his mobility (the fact that every blink puts him in another world is a handicap in and of itself). Nolan is also forced to lie about his “hallucinations”, which further puts him at a distance from his family. His only reprieve from Amara’s world, the Dunelands, comes when Amara herself is asleep – and as she rarely sleeps when Nolan does, he doesn’t even dream his own dreams anymore.
All these issues are explored well, not only in terms of Nolan and Amara’s personalities, but the wider implications it has on their dealings in both worlds, and what it means when the two of them are finally able to communicate. But the tight focus on their suffering, and the extent to which it permeates the rest of the story, also makes the narrative feel close, almost claustrophobic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: it very much depends on the reader, and whether you’re looking for light-hearted escapism or something more complicated. For me, it had a riptide effect: Duyvis writes so smoothly, and the pacing is so strong, that once I picked up the book, I was readily immersed in the world – but I also found it tiring, and had to take recuperative breaks between sessions.
The Dunelands, and the various cultures inhabiting it, are all made to feel real and distinct.
On an unequivocally positive note, Otherbound is a pleasure to read in terms of seeing diversity done well. Nolan, Amara and Cilla are all people of colour – as, indeed, are the majority of the inhabitants of the Dunelands – while the complexities of Amara and Cilla’s relationship are all rightly attributed to the power differentials between them, and not to the fact that they’re both women. Though we spend comparatively little time in Nolan’s world, his cultural heritage and disabilities are treated with depth and respect, as are his family ties – qualities that are important, not only for their own sake, but because they provide a much-needed context for Nolan’s actions, both in terms of what he’s been missing, and on what he’s ultimately battling to reclaim. Similarly, Amara’s reliance on servant-signs, her struggles to learn to read, and the enforced habit of obedience are also addressed well. The Dunelands, and the various cultures inhabiting it, are all made to feel real and distinct, and it’s always refreshing to read a secondary world fantasy inspired by more than just the usual faux-medieval mishmash.
Overwhelmingly, then, Otherbound is a strong debut, and one I’d definitely recommend. However, there were two aspects of the book that marred my enjoyment of it, and as tricky as they are to discuss without entering into spoiler territory, I don’t feel I’d be doing my job as a reviewer if I didn’t address them.
The first and most important of these is the magic itself: it underpins absolutely everything in the book, but I never felt like I understood how or why it worked – and that proved jarring on multiple counts. The problem is twofold: firstly, that the magic itself is often explained in a way that feels confusing or contradictory; and secondly, that this is only sometimes attributable to the ignorance of the characters. All the way through the book, I had questions about the magic: why could Amara repeatedly heal her entire body, but not regrow the tongue she’d lost before her magic manifested? It’s revealed (slight spoiler) that Amara can only heal because of Nolan’s presence, but we’re never told why this is – nor, for that matter, why Nolan can heal Amara but not himself, why a magic that allows him to share someone’s thoughts would naturally have a healing component in the first place, or why a new medication should suddenly impact on his ability to use what we’re told is an innate magical ability. I didn’t understand how the spell that was originally meant to kill Cilla had instead transformed into a curse, or why, when we’re repeatedly told that magical backlash is the inevitable result of two types of magic interacting, it was possible for Amara to be “attacked” by Cilla’s curse without this interfering with her own/Nolan’s magic.
Some of this may well be the result of a failure of comprehension on my part, as well as a YMMV issue: for whatever reason, I tend to be deeply sceptical of magical curses as narrative device, which in turn made me ask fundamental questions of Otherbound earlier than was perhaps the author’s intention. It never made sense to me that Cilla’s enemies would curse, rather than kill her – and, indeed, we eventually learn that the curse was the unintentional consequence of a botched murder attempt. But because it takes so long for Amara to question this, the fact of the curse ends up feeling less like part of a deeper, more subtle mystery to be pieced together – which it is – and more like a piece of dissonant plotting. Nor was this the only instance in which I spent most of the book thinking a particular magical law made no sense, or that a certain action was implausible, only to have to have it eventually revealed – and the finale did answer many such overhanging questions – that it was really a lie, or a half-truth, or explicable only in light of new information.
Had every such early question been so neatly resolved at the end, my feelings would be quite different: I’d likely still have felt frustrated at the time, but less comprehensively so, and the payoff would have made up for it. But instead, despite everything that’s explained, there’s still much about the magic that never makes sense (like Nolan healing Amara), or which continues to feel contradictory (like the explanations about backlash and mixing magic). Some answers beg further, unaddressed questions, which is irksome in a different way. In a novel where so much else felt careful and well-constructed, and despite the impact of the finale’s explanations – which were both clever and satisfying – overall, the magic felt anomalous: as though it were just an external conceit retrofitted to the story, rather than a fundamental part of the worldbuilding whose rules were capable of dictating events. That might seem like a pedantic distinction to make, and for some readers, it doubtless won’t matter; but for me, it did. I prefer to question a story because the characters are, because narrative cues suggest they might be unreliable narrators, or because there’s a clear mystery to be solved; not because I’m uncertain whether the story itself, or aspects of it, actually make sense.
Despite its flaws, Otherbound boasts an original premise, strong writing and a gripping pace, [and] the end result is a strong debut.
The other problem I had was with Cilla’s character. Similar to my reaction to her curse, from early on, it never made sense to me that Cilla, despite all their apparent differences in rank, would be so comprehensively different to Amara in terms of her confidence, education and manners. We’re told that both girls were taken from the palace as very young children – Cilla was only a toddler – and have been on the run with Jorn ever since, living in close quarters, associating almost exclusively with each other, frequently changing locations, and being constantly under threat. So how would Cilla have knowledge – like being being able to read – that Amara didn’t? If Jorn were going to teach her, he’d presumably have to do so in Amara’s presence; and even if Amara were learning only by proximity, it still seemed strange that she’d know so much less than Cilla. It felt equally odd that the two girls seemed to lack solidarity when it came to Jorn’s mistreatment of Amara, especially when their knowledge of sign language meant they could easily communicate in silence. Cultural conditioning, and a specific childhood incident cited by Amara to explain why she kept her emotional distance from Cilla, only explains so much: it felt much more like they’d been raised separately, in very different circumstances, then thrown together as teenagers, rather than that they’d known each other all their lives, and been raised on the run.
But the novel’s ultimate revelation – which makes this entire paragraph a massive, major spoiler alert – is that Cilla was never a princess to begin with. Rather than the ruling powers wanting her dead, they’re actually trying to keep her safe from their enemies: the spell they’ve cast on her is the key to their control of the Dunelands, and if she dies, they lose everything. And while this makes for a neat plot twist, narratively speaking, it also undermines Cilla further: the idea that she’d consistently received special protection and treatment from Jorn already felt thin and strange, especially given the circumstances of their lives and his treatment of Amara, but with this revelation, even the pretext for that belief comes crashing down. If Cilla being the lost heir to the throne is all a ruse, it seems a needlessly elaborate one, and something that surely wouldn’t translate to actually raising her as royalty, or treating her well – why bother, when that would only make it harder to control her in adulthood? It’s a neat trick that explains some early inconsistencies, but as with the magic, it does so at the expense of introducing more problems than it solves.
Ultimately, however, Otherbound concludes in a highly satisfying way. Though I still had questions about the magic and Cilla, and though I felt that Nolan’s ending was a little rushed – his catharsis seems a bit simplified, given all the new questions both he and the reader are left with – the book itself is still one I’d cheerfully recommend. Despite its flaws, Otherbound boasts an original premise, strong writing and a gripping pace, and when you combine all that with a thoughtful, sincere and well-researched approach to diversity, the end result is a strong debut. I’m eager to see what Duyvis writes next, and hope that Otherbound marks the start of a long and successful authorial career.