The Legacy of Tril: Soulbound by Heather Brewer
The art of worldbuilding can be difficult to master. Speculative fiction authors can tend towards bloat in this department, so that’s where the bulk of our cautionary tales lie. The term Worldbuilder’s Disease, after all, does not refer to a lack. But we never really talk about what happens when there’s too little worldbuilding. The purpose of worldbuilding is for the reader to find their feet in the narrative and situate themselves in the world. Good worldbuilding should be like an efficient travel book: there should be just enough to get by, with other materials available if needed or wanted. Too much worldbuilding overprepares and distracts the reader. But give the same reader too little worldbuilding, and the illusion that the reader is engaging with a living, breathing alternate world never gets off the ground.
Legacy of Tril: Soulbound’s worldbuilding can only be described as scant. What is there is devoted to the concept of the Barron/Healer partnership. That’s actually part of the reason why I picked it up. I’m interested by how the concept of the soulbond, a concept I’m used to seeing in Eastern media, has been picking up traction in the West. Pacific Rim, anyone? Barrons, blessed with superior strength and stamina, are nonetheless dependent on their partnered Healers, who can heal them with a touch or with their considerable medical skills. Due to the intensity of the bond, it’s assumed that (dominant) Barrons and (submissive) Healers will pair off, which has resulted in an non-gendered application of our own gender stereotypes and prejudices.
Well, ideally, it would have resulted in that. The actual application is too broad to work. Soulbound takes place during a time when Healers, so desperately needed on the battlefield and so central to the cause that eliminating them would result in a loss in the war against King Derrek, are at an all time low. Kaya, the child of two Barrons and thus seen as “unnatural,” is nonetheless enrolled in the Shadow Academy due to this shortage and her own desire to fight. (Her parents, oddly, never tell her that Healers are not allowed to learn how to fight at the Academy.) And yet, all the prejudice against the Healers takes the form of straight hatred. Surely, given that Healers are recognized as a valuable resource, something more insidious would have cropped up alongside more direct prejudice. I’m thinking of something along the lines of the idea that if women were educated, their ovaries would shrivel, the kind of Victorian misogyny that was supposedly based in protecting women and the sanctity of the home. Displacing prejudice and stereotype to re-examine it is a time-honored tradition in speculative fiction, but displacing only a very specific and individual kind of prejudice circumscribes the examination.
Upon a foundation like this, even a well thought-out world couldn’t stand. In the otherwise bog standard fantasy world of Tril, peopled by kingdoms, villages, and the dragon-esque Graplars, you’ll find teenagers attending dorm parties, attending classes in periods, cliquishly guarding their lunch trays in the dining hall, and cursing in modified modern slang that makes them sound like they’re all from Boston. (“He’s such a fakking dek!”) Anachronisms also abound: characters use the word “calories” (a late 1800s addition to English) and read paperback copies of books. I deeply suspect that Soulbound was originally urban fantasy, where all of this would fit in nicely, but, along the way, became regular fantasy. There’s also something that sits oddly about the combination of katanas and the majority of names being derived from England. I assume it’s meant to indicate a diverse society, but given the thinness of the worldbuilding, it doesn’t come across that way. At every turn, the worldbuilding jerks you out of the story to contemplate how, for example, this pre-industrial society apparently has modern printing technology, instead of allowing you to immerse yourself.
Although if the worldbuilding didn’t pull you out, the pacing would. While the worldbuilding is Soulbound’s greatest flaw, the pacing is just as stuttering. Kaya’s motivation for attending the Academy is to learn how to fight after witnessing the death of her best friend by Graplar. Later, another female friend is attacked. Both attacks—which are supposedly major events in Kaya’s life—are given scant coverage in favor of Kaya eye-rolling and yelling her way through the Academy and the standard issue love triangle.
Kaya herself is a very difficult character to love. She reminds me of nothing so much as Kate Beaton’s “Strong Female Characters.” She snarks at everything, hates everything, and is shocked when people are upset that she’s pretty baldly violating everything they’ve ever been taught to hold dear. Strategy, it seems, is not Kaya’s strong suit, especially when it comes to secretly learning how to fight under the watchful eyes of her teachers. The other characters suffer from the same flat characterization, especially the villain of this installment. To expand more would wander into spoiler territory, but let it be said that it comes out of nowhere and is executed in a far less than delicate manner.
Still, I always get something out of everything I read, and from Soulbound, I take a subpar young adult fantasy novel that, by a third of the way through in my mind, turned into a one-man show starring Ben Affleck.
Bottom line: Soulbound proves that too little worldbuilding is just as bad as too much worldbuilding, especially when it’s this incoherent. The jerky pacing and flat characterization certainly don’t help. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.