Summary: 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.
Review: Recommended to me by Sarah of Bookworm Blues as part of the Our Words book club, I expected that this book was going to be a good one. I didn’t expect that I’d get quite so addicted to it, however. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading, and I was constantly surprised and impressed by what kept happening on the pages.
Nolan experiences a rare type of seizure. Or at least, that’s what everyone, including his family and doctors, believe. In reality, whenever he closes his eyes, even for just the space of a blink, he sees into Amara’s world instead of the darkness behind his eyelids. To say that it’s a distraction is an understatement; Nolan gets sucked into Amara’s world so easily, and Amara’s life is such a part of his that he often finds himself closing his eyes and zoning out of his world so that he can better focus on hers. Amara, for most of her life, hasn’t even realized that Nolan can see through her eyes, and goes about her days keeping Cilla safe from the curse that plagues her. Cilla’s curse means that if even a drop of her blood is spilled, the world around her rebels and tries to kill her, seeking out that blood with a vengeance. Amara’s presence is necessary because she can heal, and so if accidents happen and blood is shed, Amara will smear Cilla’s blood on herself to distract the curse, allowing her body to be broken until the curse is satisfied, knowing that despite the agony she experiences, she, at least, will be able to put her body back together again.
But when Nolan discovers that his new medication allows him moments of control over Amara’s body, Amara becomes very much aware of Nolan’s presence, and just what that means for her and for Cilla.
Amara’s world at first to just be yet another generic fantasy world, only it quickly reveals itself to be pretty well-built and well-defined. There are multiple different cultures and subcultures portrayed, not just nationalities but social classes. Fine details like not signing or speaking aloud the names of the deceased, lest you attract their spirits and prevent them from resting, were touches that seem small and inconsequential on their own, but they add up to create a world that feels fleshed-out and real. And happily, the worldbuilding wasn’t done in the form of infodumping, but in casual mentions that leave it to the reader to pick up and understand. It may not have been the most unique fantasy world I’ve ever encountered in books, but it was still complete and comprehensible, and that counts for a lot.
It’s no surprise that Duyvis’s book touches on the realities and implications of disabilities. Nolan’s perceived epilepsy affects how others treat him, for one thing, and it affects the lives of his family. To help pay for treatment that Nolan guiltily knows isn’t working, his mother takes a second job, for instance. Even knowing that he’s not having seizures so much as he’s seeing into another world, Nolan’s life isn’t what you’d call easy. It’s difficult for him to focus. He’s withdrawn, misses much of his schoolwork, has few friends and hobbies. He may not have a rare form of epilepsy, but his ability to view another world when his eyes are closed affects so many aspects of his life that he can’t separate the two.
Cilla’s curse also manifests as a form of disability, as she is hyper-aware of anything around her that could even scratch her skin, with the possibility of drawing blood. As I was reading about the diligence she and Amara used to keep her safe, I was reminded of stories of people with hemophilia, aware that bleeding can be dangerous for them and yet running that risk every moment of every day, especially in a time and place where medicines to treat such a condition weren’t available.
But it isn’t just disability that Otherbound tackles. No, running through the novel are multiple themes of duty and servitude, and the question of how much of a person’s actions are related to their relative social position and how much are because of their genuine thoughts and feelings. There are themes of abuse, with Jorn’s repeated over-the-top punishments of Amara, such as burning her hands to make her feel pain, knowing she wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the act. There are themes of love, obviously, because there are few books that don’t, and seeing the development of the relationships between Amara and Maart, and Amara and Cilla, were just fantastic. There’s the question of whether it’s good or bad to use someone without their permission if it results in saving them; Nolan took over Amara’s body and acted through her in order to save her, and save others, even when she actively didn’t want him around. It’s a complex and multi-layered story, one that surprised me since I’m used to seeing so many YA novels these days make passes at complexity while really only brushing lightly by it.
Otherbound constantly throws new twists at the reader. Just when I thought I understood what was going on, some new piece of information would be uncovered, or somebody would have an epiphany, and the plot would get deeper and more interesting, and I just found myself devouring this book. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down. Alternating the chapters between Amara’s viewpoint and Nolan’s (which often included more glimpses into Amara’s world, so Nolan’s chapters were still in part Amara’s too) was a good way to convey the whole story, showing how the two worlds and the two people were so connected.
Not to mention I have a weakness for stories that involve two spirits or minds in the same body, and it’s so rare that I find stories that actually incorporate that. Where at first I thought that this was going to be somewhat akin to Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, where the main character is mostly a passive observer until they themselves are changed by the character in their head, Nolan and Amara’s relationship grew more consciously symbiotic as the book progressed, until both of them knew how much they were needed. The driving force of the story still was centered in Amara’s world rather than Nolan’s, but there was some wonderful bleedover, and it was great to see the two stories intersect and combine in ways that I didn’t always predict.
But the ending. Oh god, that ending had me open-mouthed, in tears for a moment, because damn, does Duyvis ever know how to tug at my heartstrings! Much of the second half of the novel focuses on ending Cilla’s curse, and whether or not there’s a way to do it without killing her. I don’t want to give the ending away (though I will say that if you think it ends by Cilla dying, that’s not the whole picture, and there’s so much more to it), but suffice it to say that I was on the edge of my seat as I read through it, wondering whether each moment would be the last, wondering how it would all play out and come together in the end. I haven’t felt that kind of tension in a book, let alone a YA book, for quite some time, and my hat’s off to Duyvis for pulling it off.
Otherbound is a book that isn’t making as many waves as it ought to. I hadn’t even heard of it before seeing it mentioned on Our Words. It has good representation of disability, good representation of bisexuality, good representation of so much that it’s amazing to me that it slipped under my radar. I enjoyed it so much. There were some plot threads that I felt could have been expanded upon (or thrown in without much reason or purpose), but aside from that, really, it was a phenomenal book, and I think fans of YA fantasy and urban fantasy will eat this up just as much as I did. This leaves my hands highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing more of what Duyvis will do in the future.