published in 2014
It was thanks to The SKiffy and Fanty Show that I got to know about Dutch author Corinne Duyvis and her début novel Otherbound, when they had an interview with her about her book. This interview intrigued me enough to buy the ebook and start reading it immediately, because Duyvis was saying smart things about diversity and disability; it also helped that in the Dutch SF round table was raving about this book. And they were right to. This is a smart, well written fantasy novel with a clever, original idea at the heart of it that deserves to be a huge success.
Nolan would be just a normal high school kid, where it not for his crippling epileptic seizures. Amara is a servant girl, her only job to keep the fugitive princess Cilla safe, functioning as the lightning rod for the princess’ curse. Any drop of her blood spilled will attract the world’s vengeance on her, so instead Amara has to draw the curse to her, because she has a healing power that will allow the curse to do its worst and still leave her alive. As a side effect of her “gift”, Nolan was dragged into her world, her mind, seeing and experiencing Amara’s life every time he closes his eyes, every time he blinks. So when Cilla’s protector and Amara’s overseer, Jorn, punishes Amara for her neglicence by thrusting her arms into a fire, Nolan feels the pain alongside her. It’s this what’s really behind his epilepsy, this loss of control as he’s sucked into Amara’s world and can’t pay attention to his own.
It’s a great idea and not one I’ve come across before. The closest might actually be Katherine Blake/Dorothy J. Heydt’s The Interior Life, in which an American housewife imagines/relives a life in a fantasyland whose crisises and thriumphs mirror her own. The same intertwining of a “mundane” life with one in what seems to be a fantasy world, one in which magic is real and terrifying, but here Nolan and Amara are distinct people and Nolan isn’t just a passive onlooker to Amara’s life, but attempts to actively interfere, as well as to find some way to break their connection. Because for him, life mainly consists on trying to survive around experiencing hers, leaving little to no room for school, family or anything.
As Amara and princess Cilla flee the wrath of the ministers who took control of the country in the coup that killed the rest of the royal family, Amara has to deal not just with the brutality of Jorn and her relationship with Maart, another servant, but especially with her feelings for Cilla. As a servant she’s indoctrinated, raised from when she was first made a servant, had her tongue cut out, to obey and follow. Her ordeals battling the curse, the pains she suffers in Cilla’s stead — Duyvis doesn’t flinch in describing some of them — do test that enforced loyalty to the breaking point though and yet she finds it hard to hate Cilla. Cilla herself certainly is less than comfortable with Amara’s suffering, attempting to befriend but not quite realising how impossible that is considering their respective positions. Amara knows that she both cannot reject her overtures nor accept them, as that beyond her status as a bound servant. She can’t consent to them.
Meanwhile the relationship between Nolan and Amara, in which at first seems to be the innocent bystander drawn into Amara’s mind and life unbeknownst to her, starts changing too. As Nolan increasingly is able to enter her body and mind completely, taking over and controlling it, which Amara at first experiences as blackouts, put doubt to the idea that it was her that drew him to her. Perhaps it was the other way around and was it Nolan who, for some reason, had cast his mind into hers and now, through a quirk in his anti epilepsy medication, was able to control it better and control her.
Both these plot lines of course revolve around consent, the ways in which Amara cannot give consent in her relationship with Cilla and the ways in which she can, as their relationship shifts and changes, the ways in which Nolan has to deal with his discovery that he’s now in control and what that means. For Amara, each of his intrusions is obviously a violation, an invasion of her innermost being, something that Nolan is certainly aware of and not happy with. He doesn’t want to do this any more than she wants it done to her and now that he can control it and she’s aware of his presence, he wants nothing better than to stop doing so, but unfortunately the dangers in which Amara and Cilla are caught means he and Amara do need to come to some accommodation to save all of them.
Otherbound takes consent seriously, it’s at the heart of the novel and its villains are those who violate consent in the worst way possible, while it’s heroes, Amara, Nolan and to a lesser extent Cilla are those who learn to respect or have always attempted to respect consent and other people’s boundaries, while learning to set their own. The relationship that blossoms between Cilla and Amara is all about consent, about Cilla learning to ask in such a way that Amara can genuinely give it, while Amara learns to find those ways in which she can meaningfully consent, learns to go against conditioning and free herself. The villains of the story on the other hand cheerfully abuse consent, want ultimately to force Nolan to force Amara to give in to them so they can keep on ruling unchallenged.
As important perhaps as this theme, is the disability all three protagonists suffer from: Amara’s healing gifts, Cilla’s curse and Nolan’s epilepsy, all disabilities they each have to find and have found ways to try and live with, all in some ways limiting them. These felt real to me, not just gimmicks, not some D&D like stat to give the protagonist a bit of a handicap, but something that shapes their lives and will continue to do so even if no longer present. That’s … rarer than I’d like in fantasy or science fiction.
It makes Otherbound an important book as well as an entertaining one, a young adult novel that gets across the right sort of messages about consent and disability without being preachy or issue driven, but having them arise naturally from the story itself. It’s also good on family and the relationship between sisters and brothers, as with Nolan and his sister Pat.
Otherbound is not perfect. Both Nolan’s South-Western America and Amala’s Dunelands feel a bit flat at times, more sketched than portrayed. That said, I liked the little Dutch details Duyvis has put in their fantasy land, from the Dunelands themselves to having an island called Teschel (next to one calld T’ershell’ng?) to having “sugared batter poffs”. The pacing of the story is also slightly off, with the first half of the novel taking a bit too long to get going and the second half perhaps going too fast. But these are meer quibbles. This is a great, well written YA novel and I can’t wait for Duyvis’ next one.