on June 17, 2014
Genres: science fiction
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Nolan doesn’t see darkness when he closes his eyes. Instead, he’s transported into the mind of Amara, a girl living in a different world. Nolan’s life in his small Arizona town is full of history tests, family tension, and laundry; his parents think he has epilepsy, judging from his frequent blackouts. Amara’s world is full of magic and danger–she’s a mute servant girl who’s tasked with protecting a renegade princess. Nolan is only an observer in Amara’s world–until he learns to control her. At first, Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious. But to keep the princess–and themselves–alive, they’ll have to work together and discover the truth behind their connection.
A fascinating premise, clearly and compellingly written and imagined by a startlingly original debut writer.
Otherbound is super interesting, you all. If you like incredibly original fantasy, detailed world-building, and diversity to the max in your reading, you should go pick up Otherbound.
Here’s the premise: whenever Nolan blinks (or sleeps, or closes his eyes for any period of time whatsoever), he becomes trapped in Amara’s mind. He’s been diagnosed with epilepsy, but no medication seems to have much of an effect on his blackouts. These blackouts have been pervasive since he was a little kid, and have had real physical, emotional, and social consequences for him: he was hit by a car during one blackout and now wears a prosthetic leg; he feels helpless at his lack of control over his blackouts; he also can’t spend time with family and friends without worrying about whether he’s going to get pulled into Amara’s mind.
Amara lives in a totally different world – the Dunelands – and has no idea that someone else hides out in her head on the regular. She is very busy with other things, like being a mage (but why is her magic so irregular?) and protecting a princess-in-hiding. Cilla, said princess, is the subject of a horrible curse; any time she bleeds, nature goes haywire and the world tries to destroy her. Amara has been Cilla’s servant and playmate since they were both young, and has been groomed (coercively) to protect Cilla by taking her suffering on – any time Cilla bleeds, Amara smears Cilla’s blood on her own skin as a decoy and suffers in her stead (and because she’s a mage, the physical damage isn’t permanent). Imagine how easy it is to get cuts and scrapes as a kid – that’s how attentive to Cilla Amara has had to be since she was a little girl.
This is where the story begins, but it changes quickly. When Nolan’s medication changes, he’s able – for the first time – to take control of Amara’s body during his blackouts. And this is basically where the story takes off from: what happens when Nolan stops being a passive inhabitant of Amara’s mind?
On this note: one of the interesting aspects of this book is the way it thinks about the power dynamics of reading and storytelling. That is to say, what does it feel like to negotiate a fantasy world? What is the power dynamic between story-teller and audience? Are we passive or active when we read? Does this shift? I loved the story and I loved the world-building for these reasons. While I found parts of the latter frustrating – we’re immediately thrust into the Dunelands through Nolan and Amara without any hesitation, and have to figure out a fantasy world on the go – I actually appreciated what it does narratively. We’re put into Nolan’s shoes in a very real way – we’re presented with this totally foreign and unfamiliar world and asked to make sense of it and to learn how to read it. It’s no mistake, I think, that an important aspect of the story involves Nolan’s own writing about the Dunelands: the journals he’s been keeping since he was a very young child, where he recounts his experiences in the Dunelands in detail. View Spoiler »
I haven’t thought about this enough, I suspect, but it’s very neat that one of the major tools that Nolan has at his disposal for solving the problems in the Dunelands is his own writing. Learning how to understand and be ethical about his relationship to Amara is another. But it’s worth noting that his writing helps both of them plan a way out. (Yes, this is (predictably) something I care about and am inclined to read into texts as an erstwhile English major.) « Hide Spoiler
One of the other aspects of the book I was delighted about: how thoughtful its relationships are. Ok, yes, this is a fantasy book, and so there is lots of great stuff here about mages and curses and lost princesses. But this is also a book that thinks carefully about relationships, so if fantasy isn’t immediately a go-to genre for you, there is still stuff for you to love. And if the book is “about” anything in particular to me, it’s this: how do we ethically relate to other people, to whom we are bound in various and complicated ways?
In the novel, as Nolan gains control over Amara’s body, he at first does this forcibly without her consent – and it is totally invasive and terrifying for Amara (who has already, let me tell you, had enough terrifying and invasive things done to her – e.g., View Spoiler »when she officially starts serving Cilla, they cut out her tongue and render her mute « Hide Spoiler). Not only does she learn that Nolan’s been in her mind for the last decade or so, but she discovers that he’s also able to bodysnatch her. For Nolan’s part, he’s used to thinking of himself as totally powerless when it comes to Amara – and he hates her for taking control over his life and drawing him into hers so easily. Taking over her body shifts the power dynamic between them, and the novel explores the new dynamic that emerges really thoughtfully.
This same care extends to the novel’s portrayal of Cilla and Amara’s relationship. They’ve been thrown together since they were children – Cilla has absolutely no one else in her life (and certainly no one else who sacrifices themselves for her on the reg). But Cilla’s a princess in hiding, and Amara’s her servant in a world with strict social hierarchies. Additionally, Amara’s been groomed, in the most negative sense of the word, to see herself as responsible for Cilla’s wellbeing, and her own needs and desires are always neglected as a result. At the beginning of the book, Cilla asks Amara if she hates her, and even though Amara denies that she does, they both know that it isn’t the whole truth and that she has all the reason in the world to. View Spoiler » Cilla and Amara do eventually end up developing a romantic relationship, but it’s only after a clear discussion of the crazy power imbalance in their relationship and how to address its inequities. « Hide Spoiler
I haven’t even touched on the last aspect of the book I loved – the diversity of its cast of characters – but seriously, it is pretty great. It’s a YA fantasy that features protagonists who are queer, racially diverse, and have disabilities. And there is so much else to discuss in the novel! I’m really only scratching the surface here.
I really loved Otherbound and it’s only Duyvis’s first novel! I’m very much excited for whatever she next writes. Has anyone else read Otherbound? If so, what’d you think?