When I began reading Otherbound, I was struck by the unique and intriguing premise: a teenage boy named Nolan is trapped in the mind of a teenage girl named Amara as a helpless observer, privy to her thoughts and experiences whenever he closes his eyes. Amara happens to live in another world where turbulent politics and the abuse of magic by the powerful have caused chaos and unrest. Nolan can’t tell her he’s there in her mind, and he can’t influence anything. It’s not just when he falls asleep, either. It’s every time he blinks, and it’s been going on for years. Nolan has been diagnosed with epilepsy as his “condition” presents as seizures, but it’s really just that he’s being repeatedly dragged out of his everyday life and sucked into an exciting, dangerous alternate one.
Nolan is also an amputee, which made this a very satisfying book for me to read. It’s not often I come across disabled main characters, let alone amputees like me. While Corinne Duyvis isn’t an amputee, her research shows. The swimming scenes throughout the book are a great example of Duyvis’s attention to detail. Nolan has anti-slip tips on his crutches, the lifeguards have to bring his crutches to him when he gets out of the pool, and he avoids the danger of hopping over wet tiles. Nolan’s family can’t afford a swimming leg, so he uses an adjusted flipper. (The struggle to afford the cost of medical treatment, mobility and daily living aids, and prosthetic limbs is something that many amputees and their families face.)
It’s not just the knowledge of prosthetics, crutches, and flippers that demonstrate Duyvis’s commitment to authenticity. She has captured the experience of being an amputee so well:
He grabbed the crutches and swung his way to the changing rooms as fast as he could without risking a fall. People pretended not to stare, and he ignored them … finally he thumped onto a private changing-room bench.
This walk to the change room on crutches, with children and even adults who think they’re being subtle having a good look along the way, is always my least favourite part of swimming at a public pool. Sometimes I embrace it as an opportunity to expose non-disabled people to a disabled body, but at other times I resent the inevitable encounter with the entitled gaze of the non-disabled.
In another scene, Nolan’s legs go numb from kneeling on the bathroom floor for too long:
He barely kept his balance as he leaned in to flush, then half stumbled, half hopped to the sink, using a single, sleeping foot and no crutches. They were still downstairs. Idiot. At least the bathroom was small. He ended up crash-landing on the sink with both elbows.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve forgotten or misplaced my crutches and dealt with a lack of balance, or a foot that’s gone to sleep, or a tiny bit of water on a seemingly dry floor, waiting for me to slip as I hop through it.
Changed family dynamics post-disability are also acknowledged. Nolan’s mum barges into his room and chooses outfits for him. It makes him feel five instead of seventeen, but when she is hurt by his complaints he realises she babies him to cope. He endures it, but notes that his mum would never do it to his little sister Pat. Meanwhile, poor Pat feels jealous and craves more attention and approval from her parents. This rang so true for me—the constant negotiation and evolution of family relationships after a member of that family become disabled can be really challenging.
Refreshingly, while Nolan sometimes finds his disability annoying, uncomfortable or limiting, it doesn’t define him or dominate his thoughts. The book isn’t about the amputation or his disability; it’s about his eventful adventures in a fantasy world, and the evolution of his complex relationship with Amara.
I was so delighted to find the characters are racially diverse, and that Amara is both mute and bisexual. It seems sad that I should be so thrilled to find a YA fantasy world populated with characters as diverse as the people I meet in real life, but there it is. As a bisexual amputee, I can confidently say that this is the first time I’ve found my disability and my sexuality represented in the main characters of the same YA novel. Again, these aspects of Amara’s identity aren’t the focus of the story, which I appreciated. Duyvis is masterful at representing diversity without trivialising or overemphasising it.
Given the exciting premise, the diversity of the characters, and the range of interesting issues the book explores, I was surprised by how long it took me to feel really connected to the characters and to be drawn into the book. The story launches straight into action, magic, violence and intrigue, but lacks adequate downtime between these scenes to get to know the world and its inhabitants better. I could sense that the author had created a wonderfully complex fantasy world, but I didn’t have enough information to properly understand how it worked. While I initially enjoyed the novelty of sharing what Nolan describes as his “mental whiplash” as he moves between the two worlds, the lack of information combined with the cracking pace became a bit disorienting.
These frustrations aside, I loved Otherbound. I was won over not only by the diversity and originality of the story, but also Duyvis’s skill as a writer. There’s impressive dramatic tension, and the two worlds collide and overlap in exciting and surprising ways. Otherbound looks at the concept of escapism, and the disturbing possibility that an alternate life could be so consuming, it would be worth abandoning everything you love to give in to it.
Duyvis also deftly explores incredibly complex issues like personal autonomy and bodily integrity and the ethics behind a violation of either. At various points, both Amara and the princess have their ability to control, enjoy and protect their bodies compromised. Even the likeable Nolan is eventually able to influence and control Amara’s mind and body, making their relationship quite disturbing at times. Duyvis doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of the exercise of power by one person over another.
In Amara’s world, the abuse and overuse of magic has had devastating consequences on environmental stability and the safety of the inhabitants of the Dunelands. Otherbound subtly passes judgement on those in our own world who misuse their power to the detriment of the environment, an issue that will appeal to readers with keen social consciences.
The glut of issues Otherbound explores beg for more words, and I wondered if the story could have been fleshed out over a longer word count or even a duology. It’s a good kind of problem to have, the desire for more of what an author is offering, whether that’s details about a vivid fantasy world, exploration of deep and complex issues, or emotionally revealing scenes between fascinating characters. I sincerely hope Duyvis intends to take us to the Dunelands again, but her creativity and unique approach to storytelling mean I’ll be getting my hands on anything she writes from now on.
I would highly recommend this book to readers with disabilities who enjoy fantasy, particularly amputees. It’s great to see one of our own portrayed authentically and centred as a main character in an exciting adventure.
[Editor’s Note: Kayla Whaley and Natasha Razi were the sole editors on this review. Corinne Duyvis, our fellow Disability in Kidlit editor, was not involved in any part of the editing process.]