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Friday, August 26, 2022

The First Binding by R.R. Virdi (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's first review of The First Binding

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. 

FORMAT/INFO: The First Binding is 832 pages long divided over ninety-seven chapters. Narration is in the first-person, via Ari and third person via Eloine. This is the first volume of the Tales of Tremaine series.

August 16th, 2022 will mark the North American hardback and e-book publication of The First Binding via Tor.  Cover illustration is by Felipe de Barros.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The First Binding is an epic story and RR Virdi is certainly getting a lot of plaudits for it. He deserves them and more but that’s not why I think this book is to be feted. The author is what people of yore would call a spinner of yarns, so effectively he chronicles his stories via his main character Ari.

The premise of the book is one that will draw most fantasy readers like Hobbits to fireworks. The blurb promises a storyteller and a legend who is recounting his legends. It’s a premise that has been made popular by Name Of The Wind but isn’t original to it. RR Virdi claims to be a fan of Patrick Rothfuss and he showcases deftly his homage here. Ari is not Kvothe but they share musical, & intellectual aptitudes.

The First Binding is a complex undertaking but, basically it’s a tale about Mysteries (yes that’s a capital M). The main story is about Ari a binder legend & a musician of note who is seemingly a stranger in a strange land and we the readers are left wondering who he is. He meets an equally mysterious woman who calls herself Eloine and asks him for a recounting of his story. In the past, we get to see Ari and his childhood sojourns and how he came to be associated with theater, thievery & his journey to the Ashram.

One of the best part of this story is the multitude of stories that are presented within. We see the start of the story between Ari and Eloine as they flirt and try to parse each other out. There is the mystery of who Eloine is as well what Ari is doing in the land of Etaynia? In the past, we get to learn about a major portion of Ari’s childhood. We learn how he feels about being an orphan, a sullied caste person and how much he hates not knowing about his birth family and how he got inducted into being a sparrow.

Amidst all of this, we are introduced to many legends such as:
- Antoine the Solus blessed knight vs the Des Embras
- Brahm and his children and the creation myths,
- Brahm and his fight with Saithaan
- Abrahm and his fight vs the shadow,
- Brahm & his rebirth as Radhivhan & the birth of the Asir
- The rise of the Ashura
- Brahm’s (supposed) second birth

The author takes his time to pepper the readers with these stories and from a mythological standpoint, it was utterly, utterly fascinating. I am a mythology geek and reading these stories was just something that blew my mind. I could see where and how the author was doing his best to seed the main story via these mythologies. I can’t claim to be understand his plans but I know this book is meant for re-reads and I absolutely can’t wait to re-read it to see what else I pick up. As a reader, it can be a bit frustrating when the mythology story just ends or is incomplete (I believe this is on purpose as the characters in the book are also searching for stories).

The biggest mystery is who or what was Brahm? I like this entity created by the author that corresponds to Brahma the creator from Hindu mythology. The name similarity is on purpose I presume, Brahm as an entity is all-powerful but the stories make him out to be frustrating. His creations are a bit flawed and thus cause more issues as detailed in the stories. There is a nice tract that bears a solid similarity with the conflict between YahWeh & Lucifer, this conflict is mirrored between Brahm and his first born Saithaan (which sounds remarkably similar to Shaitaan which is what the Devil is called in Islamic  mythology. Also Robert Jordan utilized this same concept in the Wheel Of Time series where the Dark One is also referred to as Shai’tan)
I loved how the author utilizes real world lore and then mingles it up for his world of Tremaine. We also get to see how different portions of the world have reinterpreted the original mythos and how twisted it becomes. This is very much like our own and further complicates things for our protagonist.
Another plus point of this gorgeous book is the incredible world showcased within. As seen in this gorgeous B/W map drawn by Cartophile extraordinare Priscilla Spenser. We are showcased a world that features a facsimile of the Indian subcontinent as well as the Asian nations along the Silk road (referred to as the Golden Road). This year by either happenstance or the whims of fate, suddenly we have seen epic fantasy inspired by Hindu mythology & Indian subcontinental culture/lore (Kaikeyi, Sons Of Darkness, The Oleander Sword & the forthcoming The Phoenix King). The First Binding sits solidly amidst these fantastic titles and promises an epic that will perhaps outshine the myths it borrows from.

I also loved how the author interspersed different nations such as Zibrath, Laxina, Amir & Etaynia which correspond to African, East Asian, Middle Eastern & Mediterranean European regions from our world. We are never explicitly told that which is which but you as a reader are given enough information to draw your own conclusions.  The Mutri empire corresponds to an Indian empire similar to the Mauryan Empire of the Old, we come to understand it’s similar to the Indian subcontinent because of the mention of the caste system, the several words that have the same meaning in Hindi and the names. As an Indian fantasy fan, this is the type of fantasy that I’ve been waiting to read since I first discovered fantasy (Winter Warriors by David Gemmell). The author really integrates several words such as Rishi (sage), Ashram (place of learning where sages & mendicants reside, usually in and around forests), Brahmthi/Brahmki (similar to Brahmi script, which was the written script for Sanskrit-Pali), Ashura (very similar to Asura who are the race of demons in Hindu mythology).
The magic system is one of bindings and using one’s mind to create these bindings that can be used with elements present in the world. The story tells us with that there’s ten fundamental bindings that binders can work with. However there’s an indication that are more bindings but they have been lost to history or purposely forgotten. The magic system is explained solidly and I believe has tie-ins to the mythology that’s interspersed. The characterization is also just ace as throughout the story we only get a first person POV from Ari & third person POV from Eloine, yet it’s to the author’s credit that the supporting character cast is etched brilliantly. From Nisha, to Mahrab, Ari’s friends at the university, etc. Almost every character we meet is three-dimensional and even though we are seeing them through a memory lens, they get to shine and become intriguing. One minor hiccup for me was the main villain of Ari’s childhood is the only person who is the least explained (this is due to their flitting appearances throughout the story & while this is done on purpose as they will have a bigger role going forward. They were the only weak link amidst this amazing character cast.
Lastly I want to highlight what I and almost every other reader has said. The gorgeously purple prose that the author has showcased within. There’s so many examples of it, from Ari and Eloine fliriting with each other:
There was…. Magic in your voice. It was the gift of the Rua. A people born of fire & the distant echoes of the the first folk. You wove sounds into stories.”

A universal truth I’ve learned over my life is this: no matter how clever the man, we are all fools when it comes to words with a woman who’s taken our heart.”

To Ari describing his life living as a jack of understudy in Khalim’s theater:
The ceiling sat far enough out of reach that it would take at least six of me standing on top of each other to brush my fingertips against it. Each piece of stone, unlike the next and mortared irregularly, was larger than my skull. Every contraption meant to add to a performance stood a beastly thing beside my rail-thin body. It was as if everything inside the place was meant to drive home just how pitifully tiny I was in comparison. How insignificant.”
To just describing his state of mind as an orphan:
I don’t know if you’re aware of what it’s like to be deprived of your past, your parents. The idea that there is nothing connecting you to anyone in this world apart from your work. There is a certain hollowness, singular and all encompassing, that fills you. The notion that you are all that is—nothing more—and when you’re not much on your own, it’s a rather crushing thing.”
To describing people:
“The man stepped closer, and a smile crossed his face I’ll never forget. A razor’s line along a sheet of ice. Cold. Cutting. And utterly without warmth.”

Mahrab was everything a young boy could have wanted in a teacher. Patience came as naturally to him as breathing. He appreciated curiosity, and rewarded it. He had energy to spare and a mind strong enough to dedicate to the rigors of dealing with me as his student. Most of all, I remember his eyes and his voice. The first were like pieces of jade worn until nothing but a tired gray remained with the slightest tinge of green to serve as a reminder of what had been there once before. His voice resonated strong and clear. He had a commanding air like he’d taught more than just young boys in the mystic arts. He could have led an army. But his gaze and baritone were never without a measure of kindness.”
There is almost an example for everything you can think of and more. RR Virdi’s prose is possibly his best facet and that is saying something in a story where the worldbuilding, mythos & plot as a top-notch as one can get in epic fantasy. Plus to top it all, this is the author’s traditional & epic fantasy debut.
I have to highlight a few things as they are not detriments but I do think fans of the KingKiller chronicles are going to be banding about how their character “Kvothe” and his story is basically the original and Ari and The First Binding treads a similar path. There are some overlaps in how Ari first learns about the magic system and world history (Abenthy-Mahrab), how he loses his family (Chandrian-Ashura), how he survives on the street (actually in this case, Ari’s street struggles significantly outshine Kvothe & the details are much more abundant), how he gets back at bullies, how he reaches the Ashram (University/magic school & faces significant troubles within the (University-Ashram). None of this is anything original and Pat Rothfuss can’t claim to be have a trademark for it. It is a hero’s journey trope that he (PR) utilized in his own way and here RR Virdi employs in a much more significantly heroic way.
If I have to make a small detriment about this awesome story, then it would be that it takes nearly 80-100 pages to get the main part of the story going. This in a 350K story is a decent portion of it and so perhaps there might be some readers who might find that bit tricky. Lastly the bit about the main antagonist of this book being a bit thin on motivation, that part is also a bit of a left turn and I’m hoping the sequel will improve on it greatly.
CONCLUSION: The First Binding is magnificent, it marks itself out because of the way the author has utilized south Asian culture and Hindu mythology to make this epic fantasy story more than a bit unique. RR Virdi is an artist who has brilliantly utilized his culture & desires to write a story for readers such as myself & thousands of South Asian fantasy readers. Just for this very ingenious act, I will always be grateful to him for the rest of my life. The First Binding is the brilliant kind of epic fantasy that enthralls you completely, and makes you want re-read it over & over. If that’s not something you wish for in a book, I dare say, why are you even reading?



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