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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The First Binding by R.R. Virdi (reviewed by Caitlin G. & Shazzie)


Official Author Website
Order The First Binding over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: R.R. Virdi is a USA Today Bestselling author, two-time Dragon Award finalist, and a Nebula Award finalist. He is the author of two urban fantasy series, The Grave Report, and The Books of Winter. The author of the LitRPG/portal fantasy series, Monster Slayer Online. And the author of a space western/sci fi series, Shepherd of Light. He has worked in the automotive industry as a mechanic, retail, and in the custom gaming computer world. He is an avid car nut with a special love for American classics.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: All legends are born of truths. And just as much lies. These are mine. Judge me for what you will. But you will hear my story first.

I buried the village of Ampur under a mountain of ice and snow. Then I killed their god. I've stolen old magics and been cursed for it. I started a war with those that walked before mankind and lost the princess I loved, and wanted to save. I've called lightning and bound fire. I am legend. And I am a monster.

My name is Ari.

And this is the story of how I let loose the first evil.

Thus begins the tale of a storyteller and a singer on the run and hoping to find obscurity in a tavern bar. But the sins of their past aren't forgotten, and neither are their enemies. Their old lives are catching up swiftly and it could cost them the entire world. No one can escape their pasts and all stories must have an ending.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (SHAZZIE): The First Binding is the first book in The Tales of Tremainea series of books being marketed as South Asian inspired epic fantasy similar to The Name of the Wind. I wanted to read this book because the cover looked interesting, and wanted to see what all the fuss on Twitter was about. But I stayed for the content within the pages.

I wouldn't say that I'm an easy reader to impress. I've been having a great reading year, and have been handing out five-star ratings to a lot of the advanced reader copies I've been fortunate enough to receive. This book is right up there on my list of impressive reads.

I wish I could just say "book is great, buy book, five stars", and leave it at that, but such a wonderfully crafted book deserves an extensive review. The thoughts that follow have been compiled over a period of two days, with utmost care and patience. But please bear in mind that no matter what I say, or how I put my thoughts across, I will probably never be able to do justice to the masterpiece that I consider this book.

This is the author's traditional epic fantasy debut, and starts in The Three Tales Tavern, where a famous storyteller Ari meets a singer, and proceeds to tell her the truth about all the deeds he is famous for, starting with his childhood experiences. The entire book is written in the framing narrative with dual timelines that detail his version of events that occurred in the past, and talk of events that occur in the present time. The framing narrative, where we see stories within stories within stories, is one of my favourites, if done well. In my opinion, not enough authors use it, and not many of those who do, use it effectively. When utilized in a certain manner, it is a brilliant literary tool that can be useful to reveal the layers of the world that a story is set in, and Virdi has put it to great use to give this book an epic feel that I just couldn't shake off. 

And what else is the framing narrative suited for? For a book that showcases love for storytelling, of course! I adored the fact that Ari has a love for stories, the whole book constantly has moments where multiple characters narrate stories, and contains constant reminders of the way stories evolve as they travel across regions over time, as well as their power in shaping not just identities and perceived realities, but entire cultures and populations.

It isn't just the narrative style that is so impressive about the way this book is written, and the way Virdi masterfully moves the story back and forth across the past and present timelines. It is the quality of the prose employed within different kinds of frames, perfectly suited for the part of the tale they are set in. In parts of the book that are set in the present timeline, he has employed crisp sentences, and in parts of the book that involve the narration of lore and the myths the world is set in, there is gorgeous prose with deliberately chosen words that left me wanting more. The length of the passages I highlighted throughout my read of this book, along with the notes I have written down, could fill in a full-length novel. I felt an extra degree of investment in the protagonist's story due to the way Ari's point of view was written in the first person, and the few parts that are of other points of view are written in the second person, as that helped put distance between the reader and the secondary characters.

Speaking of myth and lore, I predict that this will be one of the epic fantasy series that content creators will obsess over, blog posts will be written about, and YouTube playlists will feature. The same goes for the magic system in this book, which is a hybrid of the soft and the hard. As a desi - Indian subcontinental - reader, I recognise that much of the lore and the magic system are influenced by ideas and philosophies from my culture.

It wouldn't have been truly remarkable unless the story contained more than a few influences from my favourite epics, and this is where the author delivered. This book made me crave Rooh Afza ice-golas (crushed ice on a stick served with syrups of various flavours), chaas(spiced buttermilk), mango lassi (flavoured yoghurt shake), and chole (chickpea gravy) with naan, to name a few. From the mannerisms described of the many characters set in Ari's past, phrases used in everyday speech, and the behaviour that various characters displayed to those of varying social strata, every facet of this story is steeped in nuances that brought me joy.

CONCLUSION (SHAZZIE): This book is one of my top reads this year. It celebrates storytelling, is written in lyrical prose, and contains elements that are immersed in South Asian mythos and culture. Virdi isn't just an author, he is a bard in all ways the written word allows.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (CAITLIN):The First Binding is an enchanting entry in a new saga, albeit one that can feel a little too familiar at times. When we meet Ari, he’s already led quite the life. He’s forgotten more about magic than most people could hope to even hear about. So when a mysterious songstress convinces him to share his story, a tale of grand proportions. The book goes back and forth between “present day,” where Ari and songstress Eloine are having conversations and furthering their various agendas, and the story of Ari’s past.  The First Binding covers roughly three phases in Ari’s early life, and from the bits and pieces teased out through various interactions in present day, we’ve only barely scratched the surface of Ari’s history.  

In some ways, the sections of Ari’s past feels like three books bound into this one tome. Each phase of Ari’s life is distinct and pulls on some favorite tropes – during one section, for instance, we spend time with a family of street thieves. There’s plenty of great characters and great moments, and every step along the way, Ari’s story gets a little bigger and a little grander. You can see the building blocks of the myths surrounding Ari’s life being laid, helped in no small part by Ari’s own crafting of the rumors to cultivate the right sort of mystique. He himself is the kind of character who can be too clever for his own good; while his tricks help him get out of numerous problems, his cleverness (and rashness) ends up creating just as many.

If you’re the kind of reader turned off by flowery prose, this might be a difficult read for you. The early chapters especially are particularly full of descriptive text, especially as Ari plies his craft as a showman and storyteller. About a third of the way in, however, (which is admittedly a commitment in an 800 page book), the adventure becomes much more action-driven as past-Ari struggles to survive against everything from drug kingpins to monsters to demons. The sequence in the village Ampur, for instance, balances out some of the earlier parts of the story that moved more slowly. 

During the present day, there’s some great verbal fencing between Eloine and Ari as the songstress tries to coax more and more of Ari’s story from him, and as he in turn tries to figure out what she’s truly after. For the most part, the present day sections aren’t jarring interjections, serving as natural breaks between the phases of Ari’s life. There’s also some significant events that happen in the present day section; it isn’t merely set-dressing for Ari’s story, but another plot thread on its own. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of plot that prides itself a little too much on mystery. If you’re hoping for any explanation of what Ari or Eloine are truly up to in their current travels or what is motivating them, you’ll find yourself disappointed. That is a story for another book.

When I write reviews, I usually try to avoid making comps to other books, preferring to let the narrative I’m discussing stand on its own the best it can. In the instance of  The First Binding, however, you really can’t discuss it without also discussing The Name of the Wind. Those who have read The Name of the Wind will immediately be struck with some similarities from the first page of the book. The author is well-aware of what he is doing and has openly discussed his love of The Kingkiller Chronicles. While this initial similarity to The Name of the Wind did make me raise an eyebrow, I’m happy to report that most of  The First Binding manages to stay in the lane of “in the vein of.” 

(While the narrative framing device is similar to the other series, I’m not going to fault an author for how he structures the story as long as the content is original. Narrative devices are just that: devices.) 

Ari is a distinct character on distinct adventures (including one impressive monster fight towards the end of the book) and the author has done a fantastic job of making an epic saga flavored with South Asian inspirations. There were a couple of instances in the back half of the book, however, where I did a bit of a double-take because they were plot points I knew had come up in The Name of the Wind. (And it’s possible I missed earlier instances since it has been years since I read The Name of the Wind). Your own mileage will vary on whether you encounter these points as loving nods to the book that came before, or jarring similarities that take you out of the narrative. For me, it was the latter, but I’ve seen plenty of reviews that don't mind the similarities in the slightest. 

CONCLUSION (CAITLIN): The First Binding 
is the perfect book for a reader looking for a specific kind of experience. If you enjoy lush descriptive prose, stories within stories (within stories), and an epic tale that expects you to be on board for the full trilogy if you want resolution, then you’ll want to sink into this one immediately. If unresolved threads frustrate you and you can’t stand books that love descriptions, you’d probably be best giving this a pass. The First Binding is not for everyone, but for the reader ready to commit to the journey, there’s a grand saga unfolding that you can begin investing in today. 



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