The First Binding is the epic fantasy debut of author R.R. Virdi and is an intriguing and exciting first entry in the Tales of Tremaine series. The novel itself is a massive 817-pages.
In a similar fashion to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Jay Kristoff’s Empire of the Vampire, The First Binding is about an important character revealing their epic tale, telling the truth about their becoming legendary or infamous and how they ended up in the position they are in at the present time. It’s been a while since I read The Name of the Wind (and gave up halfway through The Wise Man’s Fear) but there are a few apparent similarities that stuck out to me which may put some readers off, whilst enticing just as many to give it a chance and pick up what I found to be a pretty special story. The First Binding is beautifully written, vast in its scope, and features a world with considerable depth and a flourishing rhythm throughout. After only 50 pages I was completely invested.
In The First Binding, The Storyteller (Ari) is a red-headed, magic-wielding performer, who wears a blood-red cape, and is hunting an ancient evil known as the Ashura (who are disregarded by most as being nothing but farfetched tales to frighten children). He can weave his tales how he wishes, sometimes merging stories together, twisting them, outright lying, increasing his legend, or changing the truths to however suits his needs or audiences. This is all intertwined with his magic usage, which could seem to his observers as cheap parlour tricks, yet, he may be utilising the Bindings. He’s developed an impressive knowledge of the stories regarding the Lands of Tremaine and the Golden Road. Some of the novel’s finest worldbuilding moments are presented through Ari’s tale-telling, for example, the history of the Gods, such as Brahm.
I’d estimate that about 25% – 33% of The First Binding is set in the “present day” period. This is more than I remember The Name of the Wind being, and the present-day actions here seem more dynamic and important than in Rothfuss’ debut. The story of Ari’s youth is told to the almost as mysterious, charming, and witty Eloine, whose past is also shrouded in intrigue. When I was scribbling some review writings, I noted that Ari’s history is told in chronological order which I distinguished as “Theatre”, “Boy Thief”, “Travelling”, and then “Magic Academy” periods. I believe these descriptions give a brief indication of what to expect, without really spoiling anything. Ari’s age as the storyteller isn’t disclosed. I was trying to work it out as I’m sure there are a few hints, but, due to the magical nature of this fantasy world, he could be anywhere between 30 and 100+. The flashback storytelling sections of Ari’s life cover his early youth to teenage years.
Jim Butcher reflected that Virdi’s The First Binding was written with passion and love and I think he’s completely accurate. It’s poignant, poetic, and neatly paced, with some noteworthy standout setpieces, and many moments that present a unique sense of awe. The novel has a lot of what you’d expect too, including intricate training montages, magic tutoring segments, bitter rivalries, misunderstanding love, true friendships, horrid happenings, and curious motives of supporting characters, and I absolutely loved that kookiness of the characters in the Crow’s Nest. The fact that there might be a God wandering somewhere in the mix as well really piques my curiosity. Observing the artwork on both the advanced review copy and the first edition hardback; it looks sweeping, bold, and beautiful. Virdi’s words painted mental images for me that were just as striking and will stick with me for a long time. Just recalling some of these moments and images now, I can’t help but smile.
I’ve mentioned the books from The Kingkiller Chronicles a few times throughout this review, and the influence is definitely there which I believe Virdi has acknowledged. I’d say The First Binding stands strong as a peer rather than an imitation and personally I enjoyed this book more than any of Rothfuss’ (although The Slow Regard of Silent Things is pretty wonderful). I don’t have too many negatives about my reading experience. Having to state a few minor issues, I became disinterested quickly with a couple of the songs, certain moments seemed to drag and I think the length of this novel was intimidating to the extent it slowed my reading pace. The intermissions returning to the present day were mostly well-timed but until the excellent political game of intrigue, favours and masks close to the end, these seemed more like filler than the tales of Ari. There were a few minor inconsistencies in terms of how Ari’s powers manifested, though nothing that hindered my enjoyment of the book and overall, The First Binding is a high-quality fantasy epic and I can’t wait for the next book. 8.5/10.
I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to R.R. Virdi and Gollancz and Tor Books.