Author: Corinne Duyvis
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, LGBTQIA
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: June 17 2014
Hardcover: 400 Pages
Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.
She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.
Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.
All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy via Netgalley
Format (e- or p-): eARC
Why did I read this book: Because I’ve seen this book listed in many lists talking about diverse YA which is what brought it to my attention. It also got starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
Otherbound is a complex, ambitious and engaging debut. It’s part portal fantasy, part contemporary YA and a whole lot imaginative. The characters’ arcs are astonishingly awesome. The premise is horrifying. I am most impressed with it.
Two worlds: ours and the Dunelands, where mages rule and the lost princess Cilia is on the run, cursed to die a horrible death if she gets wounded (and who must be protected at all costs). Her protection comes primarily from her servant Amara, a mage whose healing powers are essential to keep Cilia alive.
Two protagonists, dual PoV: Nolan and Amara. Both are people of colour, both are disabled. They share a mysterious connection: whenever Nolan closes his eyes, every time he blinks, he is yanked from his life in our world into Amara’s head – every time he blinks, he is living another life, not his own. He has always lived this dual life, unable to understand it, unable to stop it, unable to even communicate with Amara.
He is a silent observer of her life, always there. The horror here is manifold. Nolan’s own life is constantly interrupted. It is hard for him to keep up with a conversation, keep up with his studies, to fully engage in any deep relationship with his parents, his sister, his friends or potential love interests. When his mind is in Amara’s world, his body remains in his world. If he closes his eyes for a longer time, he chances getting stuck in Amara’s: twice he has been in a coma as a result. One time when he was a young child he lost himself into Amara’s world just enough for him to have a terrible accident that cost him his leg. His parents and doctors worry about his state of mind and believe he is epileptic. The medical bills pile up, draining the family’s finances.
Worst of all, he is nothing but a silent, powerless witness to Amara’s terrible, violent life. She is a servant in a world where being a servant means having very little choice. She is not allowed to do anything on her own. She cannot learn to read. She cannot initiate any contact with her betters, she cannot speak to them – literally, for a servant’s tongue is removed and they must communicate in sign language. She lives on the run with the Princess Cilia, Cilia’s abusive guardian and another servant named Maart, whom Amara dearly loves.
Whenever Cilia is wounded – a little or a lot – Amara is the one to absorb the wounds and suffer the consequences whilst Cilia stands by. Whenever Cilia’s guardian needs to teach her a lesson (and I am not talking about education), it is Amara’s body that learns it.
Amara never knew that Nolan was observing her every single move, experiencing her every pain and her every tiny moment of joy. Then one day, Nolan’s meds are changed and he is inexplicably able to control Amara’s body and to make himself known. He becomes able to leave Amara’s world for longer periods of time and to live his own life. But when he does so, Amara is no longer able to heal.
This changes everything. Now Amara and Nolan need to learn everything they can about the nature of their connection and what does that mean to their worlds.
I imagine that the above description makes it sound as though Otherbound is not only convoluted but also grim. Incredibly? No. The author can only be described as an amazingly gifted writer: all of the above are well integrated in the story and the transitions between not only the dual narratives but also two worlds are smoothly done.
More than that, characters and their arcs really shine through this novel. Everything about them and their lives is nuanced, thought-provoking and poignant. There are elements here that deal with financial and medical predicaments, class issues, power struggles and the matter of choice and agency.
Inasmuch as I loved Nolan’s point of view and the problems he had (I felt deeply for his need to form connections with people and his attempts to be friends with his sister), for me, it is Amara’s arc that was the more engaging.
It is in Amara’s narrative that the issues of choice and agency are explored with great aptitude. She might be a servant and have very limited power but it does not mean that she does not have agency. This is really well portrayed in the novel. I love how free she is with her thoughts, how aware she is of her condition and how the dynamics between her and Cilia and her and Nolan are played out.
With Cilia, there is a love-hate relationship. The latter because of what Cilia’s means to Amara as her better. As a servant, Amara can never say “no” to Cilia. Even though the two girls have grown up together, the differences in their social standing makes them effectively worlds apart. Yet, the two develop romantic feelings for each other and I just loved to see the difficulties inherent to a relationship when the power is so inequitable being portrayed so well and acknowledged by the characters as well as the narrative itself. Here I must point out the welcomed fact that Amara is bi (and possibly poly), is a non-issue in the book. She just is.
And then we have Nolan and Amara. There is no avoiding the horror of finding out that her every move, her every thought has been observed by Nolan her entire life. There is no evading the horrifying experience of having her body taken over. Nolan and Amara have to navigate those issues, set boundaries and cooperate so they can work together to free themselves from each other. And I was rooting through for Amara to get rid of everything holding her back – and I loved that as much as Nolan worked hard on his side to help them, she was able to help herself as much as possible.
Having said that, the world-building is probably the weakest link in an otherwise excellent novel, especially with regards to the mysterious connection between Nolan and Amara. HOW exactly does that happen? And why? These questions go largely unaddressed and this bothers me although your mileage may vary.
I do appreciate how the author really does not shy away from the consequences of her own world-building. There are no easy way outs, people do get hurt a lot and struggle to keep on going. But there is also fantastic twists, a great premise, love, growth and a beautiful romance.
I loved it and it’s a Notable Read of 2014.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
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, 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.
If he hurried, he could buy the notebooks and get home before Amara woke up. He stopped by the office supplies, adjusted his backpack, and hunted the shelves for the right kind: hard-backed, easy to stack, and with thick enough paper that his ink wouldn’t bleed through when his pen paused at the same spot too long.
“Can I help you find anything?” A perky salesclerk appeared to his right.
Nolan offered a smile. Not quite his teacher-smile, but close—he didn’t visit stores often enough to have a sales- clerk-smile. All these fluorescent lights and shoppers made him uneasy. If something happened in Amara’s world, he had nowhere here to hide. At least his school had bathrooms. Sometimes 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.
“No, thank you.” Nolan drew back from the salesclerk. Another smile. He fingered the straps of his backpack. “I’m doing fine. But thank you.”
He turned back to the notebooks. Amara would give everything she owned for a single one of these. He ignored that thought—with Amara asleep, this was the one time of day he could focus on his own world. Once she woke, or when she started dreaming, all his inner peace and quiet would fade.
Maybe he should pick up some pens, as well. He couldn’t risk running out of ink.
The salesclerk crouched to rearrange some mixed-up kids’ sketchbooks. Nolan zeroed in on the shelves, on the recent pop cover blaring from the store’s speakers. Easier said than done. The music cut out every time he blinked, replaced with Amara’s slow breaths and the quiet rustling of sleepers in her inn room.
There. They’d moved his brand of notebooks to another spot. Nolan raised his—
—it was just a snatch of a voice. Male. At first, Nolan thought it was another shopper, maybe the radio.
It wasn’t. Amara had woken up. Nolan turned away from the salesclerk. He needed to shut his eyes without the clerk worrying, get a second’s glimpse of Amara’s world to see what was happening. The fluorescent glow of the Walgreens faded into nothing—
“—this?” It was Jorn’s voice, as Nolan knew it would be. Long fingers dug into Amara’s wrist. They were cold to her sleep-warm skin, and strong, squeezing too tightly.
Jorn yanked her out of the alcove bed. Her blanket slid off, caught by the hatch, and Amara stumbled on all fours onto the inn floor. Splinters stabbed her knees and feet.
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?”
Amara didn’t answer. Even when she could, when he wasn’t dragging her by the arm like this, she never answered. Jorn would only get worse. She scrambled for balance, but her every muscle held stiff from fear and sleep.
Through the panic, Nolan tried to yank Amara’s arm free. It didn’t respond. Never did. He only got to watch and feel.
Cilla, Amara was thinking, maybe Cilla can stop him, she could tell him that teaching me to write was her idea, that it wasn’t just me—but Jorn wouldn’t care. He couldn’t punish Cilla. He could punish Amara—
His eyes flew open at the feel of the salesclerk’s hand on his back. Her perfume wafted into his nose, sharp and Jélisse fruity—no, the Jélisse people were from Amara’s world, not here. The clerk’s perfume was just plain fruit. End of story.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst
Buy the Book:
(click on the links to purchase)