“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.”
This is an ambitious story. Not only does Duyvis create a believable fantasy world (inspired in part by the Netherlands) with its own messy history, politics, cultures, geography, and rules, but she also grounds Nolan’s story in our own world, then successfully ties them both together. In some ways, Otherbound is a portal fantasy, but it’s a portal fantasy with a lot more challenges and complications.
For one thing, when Nolan’s mind is with Amara, his body remains here with no one at the helm. As a child, he slipped into Amara’s world while crossing the street, which resulted in an accident that cost him his leg. Now, Nolan not only has to deal with his missing leg, but in many ways, his connection to Amara is presented as a neurological disability, one he’s constantly working to manage.
Amara’s tongue was cut out as a child, part of her “preparation” to become a servant. Later, she developed the power to heal from any new wounds, and uses this power to protect her princess … a girl Amara can’t decide if she hates or loves. In the meantime, they’re constantly on the run, guarded by an abusive drunk of a man.
Reading through the past few paragraphs, it sounds like this is a grim, gritty, potentially depressing book, and it’s not. There’s plenty of darkness, but Duyvis presents it all without ever wallowing in despair or hopelessness.
I was particularly impressed with how she handled the growing connection between Nolan and Amara. At first, Amara isn’t aware of Nolan at all. But eventually he learns he can control her. The first time this happens, there are layers of assumptions and misunderstandings on Nolan’s part. Without going into details, Nolan is simply trying to communicate with this person, to try to do something about this connection that’s cost him so much. But in the process, he takes total control of Amara. It’s a violation that has echoes of sexual assault, both in the way Amara loses control of her own body, and in her reactions afterward.
That’s Amara’s first introduction to Nolan, and it’s a hard thing to move past. Duyvis doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties there, but she does a good job of making both characters sympathetic and understandable as they try to negotiate and learn to work together.
I did get a little disoriented in the beginning as we were going back and forth between worlds, and I would have liked a little more grounding in Amara’s world, but overall I’m very impressed with everything Duyvis accomplished in this book. There’s plenty of action to keep things moving, along with romance, a diverse cast of characters, and an interesting magical system.
It’s a good book, and doubly impressive for being Duyvis’ debut. I especially liked how she chose to end it … which I can’t really talk about without spoiling things. So you’ll just have to read it for yourself.