Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
2014 • 400 pages • Amulet Books
When it comes to fantasy, I usually don’t like my secondary worlds squirreled away within our own. (Careful Internetting tells me that this is called portal fantasy, which is an incredibly handy phrase.) As a kid, I was just burned too many times where the real setting isn’t integrated carefully and a real part of the story. At best, I’ve seen easily bruised worldbuilding (Harry Potter); at worst, I’ve seen hideous emotional trauma swept under the rug (The Chronicles of Narnia). I fully realize and know that it can be done well—I’ve seen it done well, such as in The Magicians, an incredibly brutal deconstruction of both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia—but I’ve developed an aversion to it.
(This probably accounts for my reluctance when it comes to urban fantasy, come to think of it.)
So Otherbound’s central conceit, that a teenager in our world experiences the life of a servant in a more traditional fantasy setting whenever he closes his eyes, didn’t appeal to me. What did appeal to me was Ana’s review at the Book Smugglers, which revealed that Otherbound was diverse young adult fiction, a rare enough quantity in and of itself, let alone diverse young adult fantasy. I decided to suck it up and give it a go.
And I got a book where the connection between the magical secondary world and our world is central to the plot and not something handwaved away to jump start the plot. That connection is not explained, but it is taken deadly seriously, exploring the repercussions of the connection between Nolan, the protagonist in our world, and Amara, the protagonist in the Dunelands. Amara is wholly unaware that Nolan is living her life through her eyes whenever he sleeps or breaks consciousness, preventing him from having a normal life. Nolan suffers through attempts to diagnose and treat the problem by doctors and his parents, knowing that the increasingly expensive pills will never treat what’s actually going on. He has a prosthetic leg resulting from one of his worse episodes, where he was so caught up in Amara’s world that his foot was crushed by a car. Nolan’s life has been totally ruled by his unwanted observation of Amara’s life.
Who has no idea what’s going on, until a new medication allows Nolan the ability to control and then communicate with Amara. Amara has spent her life on the run as a servant of Cilla, an exiled princess under a curse. Whenever Cilla spills blood, the world itself tries to kill her, and it’s up to Amara, who can magically heal, to absorb her wounds—be they curse-inflicted or inflicted by their supposed guardian, Jorn. It’s a violent, circumscribed life, starting with her tongue being removed in childhood to make her a more suitable servant. (Amara, like all servants in the Dunelands, communicates in sign language.) Already given the barest scrap of privacy, she’s appalled that Nolan not only exists but has seen every aspect of her life. But their communication finally lets them piece together why they’re connected—and the truth behind Cilla’s exile.
This seems convoluted, but Corinne Duyvis makes it flow beautifully. No one ever stops to explain the worldbuilding—Amara and Nolan both know it by heart—and it’s the emotional truths that take precedent. There are consequences to everything, from Nolan’s discovery of how to manipulate control of Amara to Amara’s growing feelings for Cilla, complicated by their master/servant relationship. This makes the characters absolutely shine. It’s heartwrenching to watch Nolan try to interact with his world the way he wants to—to attend his sister’s play—but being unable to because of the strength of the connection and the growing danger to both their worlds. (I don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the threat to Nolan’s world doesn’t feel like an afterthought.) And Amara’s developing agency is a joy to read, as we follow her rise from servant to equal.
Otherbound’s diversity certainly isn’t an afterthought, either. Duyvis manages to highlight that her fantastical characters are not white in a context largely free of our definitions of race, with Nolan’s family proud of their Mexican and indigenous heritage. Duyvis has even drawn her characters, which you can see over at her website. Amara’s world, being the world Duyvis can bend to her will, gets the bulk of the diversity. Amara herself is bi, although I don’t think her culture even thinks in those terms. (There are no wives or husbands in Amara’s world, just partners.) The central romance of the novel is between Amara and Cilla, and their class divisions matter much more than their shared gender. And while it’s not emphasized, the gender-expanding nature of the connection is highlighted. At one point, Nolan shrugs at the idea of what normal boys would want, since he has no framework to reference—he’s spent much of his life experiencing it through Amara’s eyes.
Often, calls to diversify existing material is met with the silly idea that diversification requires forcing the material to go out of its way to acknowledge what the real world actually looks like. Otherbound, with its elegant, if scanty, worldbuilding and beautifully integrated diversity, is proof that it doesn’t.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.