ARC was provided by the publishers—Tor Books & Gollancz—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Felipe de Barros
The First Binding by R.R. Virdi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Tales of Tremaine (Book #1)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
Pages: 832 pages (Kindle Edition)
Published: 16th August 2022 by Tor Books (US) & 18th August 2022 by Gollancz (UK)
The First Binding is a South Asian inspired high fantasy debut reminiscent of The Name of the Wind. I walked into the book in search of the most important thing in the world of escapism. An unforgettable story. And I ended up swept into one of the most memorable ones.
“All stories are true from a certain point of view. But, I know you want a clearer answer than that. To be honest, I don’t. But I’d like to think so. I’ve often thought that might be the most important part of belief and stories, choosing to believe the pieces we want. Otherwise, what good and fun are they?”
The year 2022 so far has been full of great reads for me; in all the books I’ve read in the past four months, none of them received anything below a 4-stars rating. But there was a downside to this. Despite all the wonderful books I’ve read this year, there was only one book (Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson) that received a full 5/5 stars rating from me so far this year. The First Binding will be the second one. I haven’t read anything by R.R. Virdi before this book. And still, The First Binding made it to my list of most anticipated books of 2022 due to its gorgeous cover art by Felipe de Baros and its strikingly similar blurb to one of my favorite books of all time: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Despite the immense popularity and praises for The Kingkiller Chronicle, I can count with my hands the number of superb fantasy books/series that utilize the same framing narrative as The Kingkiller Chronicle did. I cannot get enough of it. Framing narrative is one of my favorite types of narrative to read in a fantasy book, and The First Binding is another example of an excellent framing narrative usage.
“Stories have grains of truths hidden within them. The problem is pieces and things are lost to time and translation, especially when told distance and traded through different languages. But there are always kernels to find. The wise one knows how to do so.”
Before I get to the meat of the long review, I need to mention, first and foremost, that Rothfuss didn’t invent the framing narrative in the fantasy genre. He popularized it for modern fantasy, and he’s in my opinion a master at it, but he didn’t create it. It is easy to immediately call a newly released fantasy book that uses a framing narrative as The Name of the Wind inspired. Sometimes that’s rightfully deserved, but the opposite tends to occur more frequently. I will, however, say as a huge fan of The Kingkiller Chronicle, whether it’s subconsciously or not from the author, The First Binding is HEAVILY inspired by, at least, The Name of the Wind. I could list you all the similarities, but that would end up spoiling things for readers who haven’t read The Name of the Wind and The First Binding. Basically, almost all the key events that happened to Kvothe in his past timeframe told in The Name of the Wind happened to Ari as well, one way or another, almost in the exact chronological order. But this isn’t me claiming The First Binding straight up copied Rothfuss’s debut novel. I mean, there’s even an Easter Egg to The Name of the Wind in the book!
“I made my way to the bed, setting my belongings down at one side. My hands went to one of the journals I always carried, turning it open with a brush from my thumb. An old and familiar story flashed before me and I smiled.
It was of a red-haired boy who grew to be a man many thought a demon. Partly on account of his odd hair color, but more so for the deeds he came to be known for and by. By the end of it all, they say he killed a prince. Some say a king. Wizard. Bard. Hero. A villain.
The world saw it easier to mark him both, none, and sometimes, pick between depending on the day. Only he knew the truth.
And now I found myself understanding why he never told us the true accounting of things.”
As I said, The First Binding is definitely inspired by The Name of the Wind, but there are enough originalities and distinctions unique to this novel that helped The First Binding stand strong as its own thing. All of this is to say, if you don’t like The Kingkiller Chronicle, I doubt you will like this one, too. This review is almost four months ahead of the book’s publication date, and I feel it’s important to set the right expectations for future readers as best as I can. But if you’re a fan of The Kingkiller Chronicle, like me, and you crave a dose of the magic told in The Kingkiller Chronicle again, well, The First Binding is for you. And let me tell you why.
“Everyone wants their story to matter, and they do. But people forget that. Everyone wants someone, just that right someone, to listen attentively with wonder and happiness to the greater moments of their life. And everyone wants someone who’ll sit by and listen without judgment over the moments we fell. Especially when we’ve gone too far, at least for ourselves.
I think I found that person in Eloine.”
The First Binding is the first book in the Tales of Tremaine series by R.R. Virdi, and although this is not the author’s first published book, this is indeed his first high fantasy novel, and the genre is better off with Virdi’s contribution to it. The stories in The First Binding revolves around Ari, the Storyteller. The novel begins with a beautiful passage about stillness, silence, and its breaking in a similar fashion to A Silence of Three Parts in The Kingkiller Chornicle. And then, within the Three Tales Tavern in the current (the present) time frame, Ari encounters a mysterious singer on the run that he named Eloine. As their chemistry with each other sparked, Ari then proceeded to tell her the truths behind his many deeds, fame, and titles/names. Right from his childhood, entirely told through his first-person POV. It’s worth noting that the past timeframe itself didn’t begin until page 80, and my recommendation to you is to be patient. The narrative jumps back and forth between the past and present time frame, and I enjoyed reading both time frames, but the main highlights of the storytelling strengths in The First Binding undoubtedly lie in the past time frame. It is a novel about coming-of-age, found family, kindness, empathy, storytelling, magic, truth, and lies. And most of all, The First Binding is a novel about stories and their importance.
“The hardest thing anyone has to go through in their lives is exactly that, Dannil. It is the hardest thing for them. No one can take that away from them. No one can dismiss it out of hand. We are, all of us, given the difficulties we are, and it’s not our place to try to put the hardships of others into places of value. They are hard. That is enough. And they need a place to forget those hardships. And so do you.”
One of the many ways Virdi renewed the intensity and the compelling factor of the book was by frequently emphasizing how easily stories and legends get twisted, voluntarily or not, from their origin. Whether we realize it or not, in telling a story to someone, little by little, a story could transform constantly. This is how Ari earned his many titles. There is truth to his names, but the audience’s ignorance and willingness to submit themselves to a specific story also played a huge part. When a story has been told multiple times, will an individual choose to believe the truth revealed that differs from the story they’re used to, or will they choose to believe in the familiar stories they know? One of my favorite books, Dreams of the Dying by Nicolas Lietzau, mentioned: “Once the mind commits to a story, the facts become secondary. Truth bows to bias.” And I do honestly believe there is a lot of accuracy to this statement. This is also what Virdi highlighted a lot in The First Binding, and I loved it.
“Knowledge. The first things told and recorded were stories. Not great started with stories-lore-and the tales those people told their families first, before letting them spread wider in the world. You eventually learn everything is a story of something. A story of empires fallen and the ones that took their place. Stories of great men… and the worst of them. Stories of bindings and how they came to be, or how we think they did, and stories of how coinage systems work. But they are all stories first. Before any of the facts, the first keepers of knowledge kept stories.”
And great stories are not exclusive to Ari. Powerful tales exist behind everything and every individual, and all of them are unique depending on your perspective. After all, there is a story behind everything and everyone. But for the purpose of reviewing this book, we will, of course, be talking about the main character, Ari. It has been a few years since I’ve reread The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss or Blood Song by Anthony Ryan. And my goodness, I forgot how satisfying it can be to witness the truth behind the attainment of a specific title or fame. For example, Ari mentioned that he buried the village of Ampur under a mountain of ice and snow before he started telling about his past. Then he killed their god. We, readers, get the opportunity to read these events, and personally speaking, I highly enjoyed reading every revelation behind Ari’s fame so far.
“Names are parts of our story. The ones we are given, the ones we choose to use, and the ones we let others call us by or gift to them. Together, they form parts of us and our identity, and with that knowing, you come to understand the heart of that person. And a heart, like many things, can be bound.”
Finding out why Ari earned the title of Khoone (Bloodletter) or Unburned, among his many names, was rewarding to me. Ari is thick-headed, quick to anger in his journey for revenge, and obsessive about learning. I have no doubt that whether this book will click with readers or not will depend a lot on the prose (I will get to this later) and whether they could overlook Ari’s brilliance and flaws to feel invested with him. I personally could. We can tell that Ari as a storyteller in the present timeline is of legendary status. But Ari, in the past timeframe, has suffered a LOT. Similar to Kvothe, his brilliance is balanced frequently by his torment, especially during his time as a Sparrow in the streets of Keshum. Or even the bullying and prejudice he has to overcome in the fabled Ashram. He learned, multiple times, the hard way that there shouldn’t be a cost to kindness.
“Bondage isn’t done with ropes and chains. No. It’s done with honeyed whispers and poisoned promises never meant to be kept. And if you follow them—believe them—you may never live long enough to realize those promises and dreams on your own.”
I found Ari’s pursuit of knowledge, Bindings, and the art of storytelling to be admirable. Though he is prone to anger, he can’t keep his mouth shut most of the time, but Ari has some appealing qualities to him, especially in kindness which he proved time and time again to his friends. Ari’s friendship with the member of The Sparrows and Ashram, especially Radi, were some of my favorite scenes to read in the book. I think with coming-of-age fantasy with a magic school (yes, Ashram is a magic school) setting, it is mandatory for the main character to be accompanied by precious friends who genuinely care about each other. It’s even more necessary when there’s a rich and spoiled bully (like Ambrose from The Kingkiller Chronicle) in the book. Ari got that friendship in Radi, and hey, have I mentioned there’s an animal companion for Ari, too? A stray cat named Shola, and what a riot Shola is.
“Is he here to perform? Even though I hadn’t developed a keenness for music at that point in my life, I wanted to see my friend in the heart what he loved most. It was right, and more than that, I owed it to him. But, there is a simpler reason well—a better one.
He was my friend.
And that is always reason enough.”
I should note that if you’re starting this book expecting a lot of actions or battle scenes, it is very likely that you’ll find yourself disappointed by it. The First Binding is not a novel with many battle scenes, it did contain a few battle scenes in the last quarter, but battle scenes and actions were not the main charms of the book. The First Binding do, however, have more than enough intrigues, manipulations, and so many mysteries in its rich mythologies to strengthen the core of the narrative. I actually think the Game of Families at the end of the present timeframe was the least captivating part of this entire book for me. The Game of Families was not bad per se, but it fell in quality compared to Ari’s retelling of his past. I certainly loved the kite fighting more, and I cannot wait to read more revelations of Ari’s names in the next book.
“There’s something to be said in practicing old skills, no matter how impractical they might seem. Trials a lifetime ago had taught me nothing ever loses its usefulness. And that being prepared pays well, sometimes in saving one’s life.”
To put it as simply as possible, it feels appropriate for me to claim The First Binding as The Name of the Wind inspired novel infused with a South-Asian world-building. The world-building, the magic system, and the prose are the factors that transformed The First Binding to be its own thing. The world is extremely rich in its myth and history, and there is a myriad of room for theory-crafting if you’re into that. The stories within stories were enchanting. Reading every section about Ashura (think of Ashura in the book as a mix of The Chandrian and Halifax), Brahm (The Creator in Trimurti), Abrahm, Radhivahn, and more were alluring. The Indian-inspired Mutri Empire and the brutality of the caste system felt well-realized. And lastly, the magic that revolves around the principles of faith and beliefs proved to be a good decision. The binding is a combination of soft and hard magic systems influenced heavily by the power to believe. This means the user must REALLY believe in something even when the reality is different than intended. Essentially, it is like rewriting reality. For example, fire always burns, but a successful binding can turn the burn effect into freezing when they truly believe in it. The foldings and the bindings were complex, and they never failed to be interesting to me.
“Believing is easy. And it’s the hardest thing ever. Just forget everything you’ve learned about how the world works, and believe it works how you want it to, no matter what. And no matter the cost.”
I loved this book. This book is 800 pages and 350,000 words long, but I never felt bored reading it. I felt distraught the sequel is not available for me to read yet. The First Binding is Virdi’s first high fantasy performance, and the immersive stories he put on this tome have ensured him a spot as a high fantasy author to keep an eye out for. I thoroughly enjoyed Virdi’s accessible and lyrical prose. I shared many quotes in this review, but I actually highlighted more than 40 passages in the book. I wish I could share them with you, but I will leave the rest for you to read and find out for yourself.
“Belonging is one of the oldest calls and cries our hearts make. And when they go unheard, pain fills those empty spaces. It makes that part of us go distant—grow cold. Ice forms and it’s ever harder to let anyone ever come into those places again.”
My instinct says the sequel will be even better. If that’s indeed the case, it’s only a matter of time until Virdi and the Tales of Tremaine will be remembered for many years to come. The First Binding is the first volume in a new magnificent and ambitious high fantasy series to obsess over, and I can see myself coming back to this world multiple times. The First Binding even made me pause playing Elden Ring for a week. Let that sink in. It requires something exceptional to stop me from playing that masterpiece, and Virdi’s high fantasy debut fulfilled the requirements. If you are a fan of The Kingkiller Chronicle or keen to read a great take on framing narrative, be kind to yourself and the author by pre-ordering and reading this incredible book when it’s out. Tor Books promised to get R.R. Virdi a Trex with a laser beam cannon if The First Binding attained 100,000 pre-orders. Let’s get Virdi his Trex.
“Kindness is freely given, without the want of reciprocation, let, obligation, or lien.”
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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