Final Rating: Three and a half cups of independence-flavored tea.
Before we get started, I’d like to say a couple of things: First, the author of this book is a total sweetheart and has been my good friend on Twitter for almost two years now, iirc. Second, she didn’t ask me to do this review, nor was the book provided to me for free. In fact I don’t think she even knew I had it until I asked her if it was OK for me to post about it. ^_^;; So if you, as a reader, are concerned about fairness: Don’t be. I’m going to be just as honest as I ever am.
Bound is not a bad book. Trust me, I have read enough of them to know. The impression I kept getting as I read was that this was a first attempt. This was an author who was still discovering not only their plot and characters as they wrote, but their voice. They hadn’t found their stride yet, nor had they found all of their confidence. There’s a lot of good in this book: I liked the plot, I liked the interesting take on magic, I liked the romance. But from the very start, it felt cluttered; as if someone had bought too many words at a garage sale and forgotten to put them all away when they got home. The editing needed to be, in my opinion, far more aggressive, because there was goodness in those lines–it just kept getting buried. There were many paragraphs and sometimes even entire chapters that didn’t need to be as long as they were, or that focused too much on exposition and not enough on leaving the reader with a feeling of forward motion or tension.
Again, I’ve read so many books that Tell instead of Show, often to a painful degree: Bound is not one of those. There are places where not enough is Shown, but overall I could tell the author was trying but maybe just didn’t have enough critical eyes on the work to be truly honest with her about how heavy it can get.
Another thing which bothered me about Bound is the characters–not that they’re unlikable or dull (quite the opposite), but simply that they all feel too available. The protagonist, Fay, meets many interesting people on her adventure, but not a single one of them–despite having rich lives, personalities and motivations of their own–ever has anything more important to do with their time than revolve around her. Which felt incredibly weird, and a bit like playing a video game where all of the NPCs just stand around waiting for the PC to return and give their lives meaning. (In fairness, this is a mistake I have made myself in my own writing many, many times.)
For example, one side-character is an actual member of the royal family; and not just one of the “extra sons” hoping to fade into quiet obscurity while his older brother takes the throne. No, this is someone who is slated to rule an entire country in the next few years, and yet he has time to slip away from court and run around with Fay? Not only that, but play host to her, and always be available when she needs someone to talk to? It’s not that I want this character to disappear or be different, but I need more of a reason for his involvement and availability. That, and I need to be Shown why it is he cares so much about this one girl when he has an entire country to run. I would also like to know him as a character: his motivations, interests and things he has going on in his own life; rather than just how he relates to Fay. Maybe he’s got a project of his own that means he can’t always be there when Fay wants to talk, which means Fay has to find some other way to cope with her feelings, which can lead to bad decisions and additional conflict. Or maybe one of his hobbies really sets her teeth on edge, so she avoids him more than she should and misses out on his good advice–small stuff like that would have made a world of difference in this book.
Which brings me to my final issue: Fay’s characterization is also a little frustrating at times. I like Fay, I truly do. She’s headstrong, capable, and doggedly determined that no one but her will decide her own future. That is fucking great. I live for women who refuse to play by other people’s rules. But…that’s pretty much all we get about Fay. If you were to provide me a paragraph of Fay speaking, but not tell me it was her or which book it was from, I’m not sure if I’d be able to tell her apart from any other character in any other book. She doesn’t have any hobbies or interests, to speak of, and her moments of defiance and independence are largely reactionary, only displayed when there is a male character “on screen” demanding she go against her wishes. Which happens a lot. Eventually it just starts to feel like Fay is a ball the two male protagonists are hitting back and forth between them–she loses her forward motion and instead just kind of whirls around, bouncing off the edges of the plot.
Look, I get it. Men are exhausting. They’re always up in your face about their feelings and it never stops. But Fay is a great character, and she deserves to have more agency beyond “trying to do things men are shouting at her not to do”. (And woof, do they shout in this book.) Most of the time, Fay has inner monologues about how confused she is–which again, is fine, but I found myself wishing they were balanced out with more action. There is no point in the book where Fay does something entirely because she wants to do it, without first having a boy argue with her about it or follow her because they don’t trust her to look after herself. She even says at a few points that she doesn’t trust herself or her own abilities, which really stuck in my craw. Not only is that a statement which I personally dislike, but I felt like it was out of character for Fay. We all doubt ourselves sometimes, but Fay’s fierce independence gets lost somewhere along the way in this book, and it made me sad.
And for a powerful Magicia, Fay does shockingly little magic. Actually, no one in this book does much magic. We get a few shields and some tracking spells but otherwise it’s just people going about their business. This disappointed me because I was really intrigued by the themes the book sets up, and I was eager to see what magic looks like in this world. I am a total sucker for magic systems, and I was hoping to see Bound expand on this at least a little. Perhaps that follows in the rest of the series?
In conclusion, Bound feels like a good early work that could easily blossom into something incredible given a bit of ruthless editing. I wouldn’t have spent so much time with it if there was nothing worthwhile about it, and I will definitely be revisiting Hill’s work in the future.