The First Binding by R R Virdi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Epic Fantasy, South Pacific Fantasy
Pages: 830 pages (Hardcover Edition)
Published: 16th August 2022 Tor Books (US), 18th Aug 2022 Gollancz (UK)
The poetry snuck up on me.
During a section of this book, there was a story within a story, a chapter-long tale that was written in regular narrative fashion… but then I started noticing how all the sentences were split in half, and those half-sentences started to rhyme. They weren’t written on the page in verse (although there were plenty of songs and poems found elsewhere throughout the book). No, this chapter had built-in rhyming couplets woven into the chapter’s narrative that were subtle, yet incredibly powerful. And it went on for an impressive length of time. Not all lines rhymed, but enough to feel like you’re reading some epic poem of yore, adding to the mystique of the ‘storyteller-telling-a-story-within-a-book’ vibe. A Russian doll of tales. An ouroboros of oration.
The First Binding is a massive undertaking. I’ve read trilogies shorter than its 800+ page length. And as I neared the end, I did not want it to finish. It is many stories in one: about present day Ari, ‘The Storyteller,’ who is on a mysterious mission far from home. It is intercut with Ari telling his life story to a mysterious stranger, where we learn about the legend of his youth, and how he became so powerful and infamous. And it is about the changing world surrounding Ari and this stranger, as turmoil and unrest may force Ari’s past to catch up with his present.
You may have heard this one before: a talented kid with a tragic beginning, telling his tale at a tavern to set the record of his infamy straight. The comparisons to Name of the Wind are deserved. Although I am a fan of Rothfuss’ series, I felt like Kvothe’s story often spun its wheels. Not once did I get that feeling while reading this book. Virdi packs an incredible amount of lore, memorable characters, hateful antagonists, complex magic systems, religious history, races, classes, geography, music, and of course, stories into one volume – yet by the end, it still felt like our time with Ari was just beginning.
There’s so much to unpack in this story: hidden clues, jarring mysteries, and nagging questions as to why certain things are the way they are. This book isn’t even out yet, yet I have to restrain myself on Twitter from bombarding the author on when he thinks book two is going to be published. Virdi is excellent at giving us just enough information to theorize a hundred different paths for the story to turn.
I think this is going to be a landmark book when it publishes. It might take some patience, as the first 10% or so is a bit slower than the rest, but once you lose yourself in this South Asian-inspired fantasy world, there’s no turning back. The First Binding is a grand, mesmerizing story that never ceases to unveil new layers of mystery and wonder throughout its epic scope. A rare treasure of a novel, and something truly special.