Today’s Book: “Otherbound” by Corinne Duyvis
The Plot: Every time Nolan (a modern teenager) blinks, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl in a fantasy world.
Autistic Character(s): The author.
This is my second review of one of Duyvis’s books, after “On the Edge of Gone”. Although “Otherbound” has no autistic characters and runs on a completely different premise, the two books share a diverse, disabled cast and a keen awareness of the power dynamics that constrain each character.
Seeing through the eyes of someone in another world sounds cool, until you stop and think about what it would actually entail. The connection between Nolan and Amara is invasive and unpleasant for both of them. Amara doesn’t want to be constantly watched, even in her most private moments, by a person she doesn’t know. Nolan doesn’t want to be constantly distracted from what’s happening in front of him by his uncontrollable visions – especially when Amara spends time being abused, injured, even tortured, in ways Nolan feels but can do nothing about. When he does find methods to affect Amara’s world, they are methods that can violate Amara’s agency. Duyvis does a good job showing the complexities of how the two of them try to deal with this and to negotiate boundaries – clumsily, imperfectly, a little at a time and with a lot of justified resentment.
Nolan’s periods of distraction have been misdiagnosed as a form of epilepsy. The trope of a character being misdiagnosed because of their magical powers can be problematic, but Duyvis handles it deftly. The trick is that Nolan is genuinely disabled by his visions. He’s not an able-bodied person who was called disabled because people misunderstood him; he’s a disabled person who got told the wrong name for his disability. Because of his visions, he can’t keep up with school, maintain normal friendships, or even fold laundry successfully; that’s how difficult it is for him to focus on the world that is around him. Meanwhile, other disabilities and forms of diversity are also represented. Before the book begins, Nolan lost his foot in a car accident (caused by his visions). He belongs to a Latinx family and speaks both Spanish and English at home; money is a problem, and his mother has taken a second job to help pay for his medicine. Amara is bisexual, her world is predominantly nonwhite, and she is non-speaking, because her tongue was cut out when she became a servant: servants in her world converse using sign language.
You might have guessed already from these descriptions that a lot of unpleasant things happen in this book. They do. And, especially in the first half of the book, Amara and Nolan are both relatively helpless in the face of these unpleasant things. It can be difficult to slog through scene after scene of Amara being treated horribly and Nolan running off to curl up somewhere and feel sick. This does improve as the book goes on: characters gain more control and more agency, and the pace picks up. The last third in particular is delightfully full of nail-biting twists as the characters discover secrets about why they are connected as they are, and what that means for their worlds.
A lack of character agency in places might also be an unfair criticism, because it’s intimately connected to one of “Otherbound”‘s greatest strengths: its keen awareness of power dynamics. Amara lacks agency, not because of anything wrong with her as a person, but because she’s been trained since childhood to do nothing but obey and will be punished if she deviates. The people who abuse her are bad in an obvious way, but Duyvis spends just as much time detailing subtler ways in which power affects Amara’s life. She is attracted to the princess she serves, for instance, but their power difference makes that attraction difficult to deal with in ways that the princess’s sincere attempts at kindness do nothing to fix. The princess herself is under a magical curse in which any small injury could kill her, and this makes her dependent on others for help. As mentioned, Nolan and Amara’s connection brings additional forms of powerlessness into both lives which are difficult to deal with. And while Nolan lives a materially more comfortable life, he has his own power problems: not least of which is the fact that he has to lie to his family and his doctor to conceal what’s really happening during his “seizures”.
(This leads to one of my few other criticisms, which is so small that I really don’t feel it’s worth mentioning, but I’m compulsive and I have to. Duyvis mentions in the epilogue that Nolan ends up seeing a therapist who helps him deal with the trauma of what happened to him during the book. I understand why this line would be included: it’s good to show trauma being real, and characters going to therapy for it without being judged. But Nolan previously spends the entire book hiding his visions from everyone because no one will believe him; most people would classify his visions as hallucinations or delusions. So where does he suddenly find a therapist who believes him and who gives him appropriate PTSD therapy instead of trying to treat him for being delusional? And how does he explain this therapist to his parents? Therapy is not equally accessible to everyone, and that is a point that people often forget.)
Like “On the Edge of Gone”, “Otherbound” is at times a difficult read, but a well-crafted one which has important things to say about agency and power, and which sensitively portrays an intersectionally diverse world. If you can stand the abuse scenes, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one up.
The Verdict: Recommended-2
Ethics statement: I have occasionally corresponded with Corinne Duyvis and have posted reviews on her Disability in Kidlit site. I read her book by borrowing an e-copy from my local library. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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