Welcome to our next Let’s Read! Introducing: OTHERBOUND.
(you have to say it like that or it doesn’t count)
So for the followup to my Terry Goodkind adventure I decided to read something that a) is YA and b) might not suck. A good book, right here on this very blog! Imagine that.
Otherbound came onto my radar via various blogs and reviews. Anyone following the YA scene knows that the entire marketing label has been straining for years under the one-two punch of the meteoric success of Twilight and The Hunger Games, leading to a gigantic explosion of supernatural and/or sci-fi trilogies written in first-person present tense featuring heterosexual love triangles. The tide of copy-cats seems to be finally receding, potentially leaving behind space for YA genre fiction that focuses on relationships in a more mature and nuanced way; Otherbound is, according to the reviews, an example of this maturation. It’s a single-volume (dear god yes) sci-fi/fantasy-ish novel with quite an interesting premise, and now we are going to scrutinize its mysteries.
But first let’s scrutinize the cover! It has two faces on it, which is relevant given the premise. They appear to be in different worlds, also relevant. Something about the way the bright purple text wraps around their noses is incredibly distracting to me.
With that out of the way:
In the world of the Dunelands, Amara was sleeping. Striding through the Walgreens aisles, Nolan wished he could do the same—just curl up in bed, shut his eyes, and see nothing but the insides of his eyelids.
No: see nothing but the insides of Amara’s eyelids. He hadn’t seen his own in years.
Nice opening. Sets up the premise in the first paragraph. That’s the sort of hook that will get agents to pay attention to you, kids.
So our boy Nolan has a strange affliction: whenever he closes his eyes, even just to blink, he sees through the eyes of a girl called Amara, who lives in a magical realm called the Dunelands. This would suck quite a lot, as we see here- Nolan is just going to a shop to buy notebooks and it’s presented as a grueling and carefully rehearsed task where he panics at the lack of a solitary hiding place in case shit starts popping off in the Dunelands. Metaphor for social anxiety or something? Maybe.
At least his school had bathrooms. Some- times he even got to use a teacher’s office. When the disabled kid said he felt a seizure coming, teachers listened, if only out of fear that Dad would threaten to sue them again.
Yeah, that would suck. I mean, it would sick big time if he really was having seizures, but it sucks extra big time if he’s actually getting glimpses into a parallel dimension and he can’t tell anyone.
He turned back to the notebooks. Amara would give every- thing she owned for a single one of these.
This is a really interesting idea- that Nolan is so inseparably joined to this other person that he finds himself thinking about her opinions even when she’s not “present”. Basis for a romance? I can see how the scenario could lend itself to that.
While Nolan is in the middle of his shopping Amara is abruptly woken up by a man pulling her out of bed and we see how the dual narrative of the story is going to be handled on Nolan’s end, with the events that Nolan is seeing in the Dunelands narrated in bold text. It’s an interesting style because we’re getting the events filtered through his perceptions.
Jorn shoved beige squares of paper at Amara. Scratches of ink covered every inch, forming slashes and loops and dots Amara was learning to recognize as letters. “I know these are yours,” Jorn growled. “You’re learning to write. What do you think you need that for?”
Just a minute ago Nolan was obsessing over having enough notebooks and ink. Can Amara see through his eyes as well? Can they communicate with each other or something?
The scene continues with Amara panicking about being punished by this Jorn guy, and we learn that Nolan is also privy to Amara’s thoughts as well as seeing through her eyes. Yeah, I can see how that would get pretty messed up over time.
How messed up? Nolan has to try not to blink, because doing so will force him to experience split-second flashes of whatever unpleasant experience Amara is currently going through. Yikes.
He couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. They burned. He blinked, and for that fraction of a second Amara sucked him in—flames crackled in the room’s fire pit, and Amara made a sound that barely escaped her lips—then Nolan was back. He blinked a couple more times, too rapidly to get anything but flashes of heat and fear. The fire was getting closer.
Apparently this Jorn guy is flying off the handle worse than usual.
Another blink. Nolan went from stalking through the aisles to—dragged along, legs tangled and kicking—and when his eyes opened and he snapped back to his own world, he stumbled. His prosthetic foot slid out from under him before he could get a grip
Prosthetic foot? Wonder what the deal with that is.
Nolan’s mom shows up and gets him bundled into a back-room before he has a “seizure” on the shop floor, and just in time:
The next time Nolan blinked, flames licked at Amara’s hands. He muffled a scream. He found himself bent over, the notebooks in his hands creasing. Let me go, he thought at Amara, though she didn’t hear him and never would. This was a one-way street. She didn’t know Nolan existed, let alone what her magic did to him.
I guess they’re not communicating, then. We get an explanation for the notebooks shortly after:
Nolan managed to open the zipper of his backpack, then grabbed his current notebook and the pen clipped to its cover. He should write down what he saw. Writing always helped.
And if nothing else, you’ll have some kick-ass material for a fantasy novel some day!
We’re over to Amara now!
Amara’s skin curled away, then healed in fits and starts before burning anew.
That’s pretty messed up.
So Amara is a bodyguard or something to Cilla, who is a princess of some variety. Despite this, she doesn’t seem to be able to rein Jorn in and the guy seems to have some…. anger issues, to say the least.
Amara tried to focus on Maart instead. Across the room, beyond angry flames, his callused hands signed support, love—things she couldn’t do anything with.
Love interest ahoy! He seems pretty cool and not an unhealthy stalkerish shitbag, which is a low bar I know but YA. And are our heroine and her dude already in a relationship? You mean we’re not going to get chapters and chapters of hesitant moon-eyes and swooning? Be still, my heart.
“I’ll talk to him.” Cilla stood with her back straight and spoke as primly and carefully as ever. Only the fingers clutch- ing one another by her stomach gave away her unease. “I’ll tell Jorn it was my idea to teach you and Maart to read and write.”
I’m wondering if Cilla’s seeming inability to stop this from happening is down to some sort of quirk of her social standing- she’s a princess, you’d think she’d have the clout to tell Jorn to cut it the fuck out with the torture- or if she’s just too timid to actually stand up to him. I’m currently leaning toward the latter. After all, having the authority to command someone (and we don’t know if she actually does) and having the courage and mental fortitude to use that authority are two very different things, especially if Jorn has been an authority figure in her life since she was young.
During this scene we see that Amara and Maart are both communicating using sign language, as servants aren’t even permitted to speak. Seems like a nice place, this world.
It was easier to stop someone from speaking than anything
else; the scars in her mouth testified to that. If she’d learned to
heal a couple of months earlier than she had, she might still
have a tongue.
Seems like a…. uh….
Amara begins cleaning the floors and we learn that she has to be extra-vigilant against anything that might “activate Cilla’s curse”. This includes pine needles, apparently. Also, this happy party has been on the run ever since Cilla and Amara were kids, presumably due to said curse.
“You’re reading faster every day, though,” Cilla said. “If you
want, we can keep studying. I’m sure we can hide it better from
Cilla, here’s some advice
Maybe bring this up another time
Amara is predictably kind of pissed at this suggestion. I’m getting the feeling that Cilla has her heart in the right place, but is extraordinarily naive. Not exactly a novel personality for a Princess, but it’s interesting none the less.
“Well . . . I found a news sheet for us to study.”
Amara hesitated. She signed slowly, “Is that a request?”
“It’s a . . .” Cilla looked down, towering over her. Cilla was
younger and only a fingerwidth taller, but from this angle
the difference between them seemed monumental. “It’s a dowhatever-
Okay, I am legit kind of fascinated by these two characters and their interactions. You have my attention, Otherbound.
We get a bit more information (delivered with elegant and unobtrusive exposition, fuck yeah we are firing on all cylinders today) about Cilla’s curse, namely that it activates at the slightest bloodshed and if it does Amara needs to “lure the harm her way”, apparently a painful process. We also see that Cilla’s position comes with a lot of vulnerability, as seen here:
“Here.” With a flourish, Cilla retrieved a crumpled broadsheet from her topscarf. She placed the paper on the floor and moved to smooth it out. A formless sound escaped Amara’s throat. She shot forward to still Cilla’s hands before they reached the page.
Cilla started. Then, after a moment, she said, “I . . . wasn’t planning to touch the floor.”
The situation is very reminiscent of someone dealing with a serious condition- maybe an immune system problem, for example- to the point where their caretakers are constantly fussing over them and policing their actions. Which would get pretty annoying, even if the concern is obviously understandable on Amara’s part. Speaking of which, our gal Amara has some understandable anger at Cilla:
Even if—too often—she wanted to. No Cilla, no curse. No pain. Then she’d see that restrained smile on Cilla’s face, or they’d sit hunched over a book, thigh by thigh, and Amara didn’t know what she wanted.
Hey you know what this reminds me of? That ungodly terrible sub-plot with Rachel and the Princess from Wizard’s First Rule, except actually interesting and well written. Apparently I selected the right book for a palate cleanser.
The curse meant Cilla needed to be fully aware of her every movement, which made her graceful and cautious at the same time. People would say it was simply her Alinean arrogance, but it went further than that: Cilla owned every step she took. Even when she ate, she did it gently to avoid biting her cheeks or tongue.
Man, these characters are in some fucked up situations. Yikes.
That kind of thoughtfulness—the barely there sway of her hip, the deliberate way she crouched and her fingers plucked open her bag—drew the eye.
All aboard the forbidden romance train CHOO CHOO
Anyway the newspaper prompts some more background info (also elegantly delivered) on the situation in the Dunelands: the previous ruling dynasty that Cilla was born to was ousted by someone named Minister Ruudde (does “Minister Rude” sound like the stage name of a really bad white rap artist to anyone else?), who know controls the kingdom. This would explain why Cilla is in hiding. Apparently there’s a resistance underway but it doesn’t sound like it’s going very well. The instigators of the coup also cursed Cilla, reasoning correctly that someone so fragile and prone to dying at the merest scrape isn’t going to be able to reclaim her throne very effectively.
Maart comes in, much to Amara’s obvious relief, but then she finds herself gazing at Cilla some more. I don’t even care if this turns into a love triangle, it’s actually interesting. After Cilla leaves Maart and Amara argue over Amara’s sort-of friendship with her, with Maart (pretty reasonably) asking why Amara even cares about keeping her alive.
“You shouldn’t thank her. You shouldn’t even be checking that floor! Let those splinters stab her instead of you. Let her die. Why do you even care about putting her on the throne?”
It’s the POWER OF LOVE, Maart. Or at least teenage hormones. Hell it’s YA, they’re the same thing.
Unfortunately it seems that Maart is becoming more and more frustrated with what’s happening to Amara (again understandably) and think they should make a run for it. Amara thinks that the authorities will kill them for being runaway slaves and/or sheltering the princess.
The chapter ends with Amara and Maart having sad-panda kisses and generally being crushed under the weight of fear and paranoia that their position in life brings. Have fun kids!
SO THAT WAS PRETTY FUCKING COOL. I really, really liked these opening chapters. Great characters with all sorts of interesting interactions and conflicting purposes- I could write an essay on these people already- and a killer premise. The only flaw I can see right now is how relatively tangential Nolan’s storyline is. The events in the Dunelands obviously have a big impact on him, but (at the moment at least) that doesn’t operate in reverse. Add in the fact that Amara’s story is frankly way more interesting and I fear that the Nolan POV chapters might start to bog the book down.
I guess we’ll find out!