I saw advertisement for this book everywhere, and automatically thought: ‘There we have yet another novel that is being hyped up so much, it can only be a disappointment when you finally get to it’. I was so wrong! The Binding deserves all the praise, adoration and hype it receives these days, because somehow, Collins gets everything right. It is both Jane Austen and Victorian-era style, but with a modern twist: our romantic couple are two men and they live in a world in which all books are magical.
The world of The Binding is very much like England anno 1890: Victorian morals rule (misogyny, homophobia, repressed sexuality and hypocrisy are everywhere!) and society is ordered in a strict class system. The only different between this historical period and The Binding’s world is that there, books are not imagined stories, but actual memories taken from people by binders. People usually come to binders when they have memories too painful to live with, hoping that the binder will hide their books and memories away in their vaults forever. But there are some binders who make a living selling books for the entertainment of the public- which is why literature, binders and booksellers are looked down upon in general.
Emmett Farmer does not really care about books, and he is not entirely clear on details of their creation. All he wants to do is take on the family farm, but he has been ill and cannot seem to regain the strength needed to do agricultural work. One day a letter arrives from the local binder, asking for Emmett to become her apprentice. His parents are terrified of this woman, but also desperate for Emmett to have a living, so they send him away although they think the profession is shameful. Surprisingly, Emmett, who used to only care for animals, soil and harvests, becomes interested in the binder trade. His master teaches him the art of creating beautiful books and some of the ethics that a binder should have in her opinion. But there is something strange going on. Emmett has these feelings of deja-vu in his master’s house, he dreams every night of a man called Lucien. But Emmett does not suspect he has been bound himself, until he stumbles across a book with his name on it! What has Emmett forgotten? Why was he really sent away from his family?
Collins manages to write an emotional roller coaster of a story without using cliched melodrama and the emotions expressed by the characters are earned! When Emmett’s sister is angry, we as readers see that it is justified! When Lucian reacts as he does, we are annoyed but it is in keeping with his character! I hurt and laughed along with the characters in this book because they felt so three-dimensional and their emotions felt so real! There is much joy, happiness, love (both romantic and family love), but also an equal measure of shame, jealousy and anger – so when you dive into this tale of Emmett and his family you must be prepared for some hard times!
Collins has crafted the romance between Emmett and Lucien fantastically! Due to the structure of the book (one part with Emmett in the present; a second part in the past; a third part from Lucien), we always know that something goes wrong at one point, even before we get to know the two of them as a couple. Their love story is slow and we have time to explore the different facets to their rather different personalities. In some ways, this book reminded me of Pride and Prejudice: Emmett can be annoyingly proud and sullen, and Lucien is rather prejudiced against binders and their powers. It takes a long time before Emmett realizes what he is feeling and dares act on them. Which is easy to understand, he lives in a deeply homophobic society.
Not only is the plot great, the characters well drawn and storyline well structured; the world building is also top notch! The magical system of binding is coherent, mysterious and presented to us in a masterly fashion. Brandon Sanderson said that world building should be like an iceberg: an author must do a lot of it, but only the peak is visible to the reader. This has absolutely been done here. We receive snippets of information about this world’s history, political structure, religion and magic. But we are never told the whole story, but are given just enough to understand what the action and conflict right in from of us and the rest is only hinted at.
My greatest hope for 2020 is that we get to return to this world! Collins has put herself in a very clever position – she has given Lucian and Emmett an ending, but there are still some unanswered questions about what happens to them further, how they will resolve some of the problems that still exist between them – and she could easily pick up their story if she wanted to. Also, what will happen to Emmett’s family after this books ends? What is the backstory of Seridith? Please, Bridget Collins! Let us come back to this world because it is really fantastic!