In a magical fortress on the edge of the world, a runaway slave mage hides from his past until the arrival of a gifted refugee threatens his close-guarded secrets. But who is this girl with the tattooed face, and what does she mean to the rebels surging across the country?
The Collarbound is Rebecca Zahabi‘s fantasy debut, the first volume of an epic trilogy set in a world dominated and divided by magic. Tatters is a powerful mage bound to another’s service by the collar around his neck. Having escaped his owner and fled the rebellion, he lives openly in the last place anyone would look for him: the heart of the ruling mages’ power, slyly allowing everyone to believe he belongs to one of the mages of the Nest.
The Nest is an ancient, giant-built fortress perched atop the Edge, where the spirits of the dead fall into the underworld or ascend to glory as lightborn auroras. Isha has come to learn to master magic, brought by the (second-)last person Tatters ever hoped to see again: the archmage Passerine, once second in command of the Renegades challenging the Nest’s rule, now just another mage seeking sanctuary from the war.
Isha is an enigma to Tatters: her memories fractured, her face inked with a kher tattoo that makes her an outcast and her magical talents a marvel. He knows he should avoid her lest she betray him to her patron, but he can’t stay away. Isha is just as fascinated by Tatters, curious to know who his master is and to find out more about Lal, the mysterious second personality living inside his head. The novel is shaped by their tentative friendship as Tatters trains Isha to hone her skills at mindlinking, the human magic of mental domination, and introduces her to the kher community serving the Nest.
The kher – or iwdan, as they call themselves – were the highlight for me. The iwdan are immune to human magic, tolerated as guards and labourers for the duration of their long lives, their horns harvested on death to craft items that bestow magical immunity on those who wear them. I was delighted that the narrative explored their culture from traditional gender roles (and how these were being upended by human subjugation) to their earth-bound beliefs and physical magic (fleshbinding). I was also impressed with the way Zahabi considered the consequences of her world-building (and how engaged I became by it) and enjoyed the contrast between the collective focus of the iwdan – where even magic is about sharing – and the more selfish human focus on the individual and dominion over others.
If human culture beyond the Nest feels under-developed by comparison, it’s mostly because Zahabi homes in on the Nest’s world of dark academia. This is characterised by constant rivalry, driven by ambition and ego, where weakness will be exploited and power must be seized from others. Human magic is all about imagination and strength of will; but those who push too hard can end up trapped inside their own heads, mindless husks reliant on the charity of others or reduced to begging outside the Nest’s walls. It’s a fascinating magic system (although I hated the language around it; ’do some mindbrawl’ is just a horrible, clunky phrase that threw me out of the narrative every time).
I was more interested in the occasional glimpses of tension between the Nest and the priesthood; and the way that Zahabi used festivals and storytelling to build her world through the stories it tells about itself. The result is immersive and nuanced, informing the plot that emerges from it and revealing the characters through their interactions.
The Collarbound is unapologetically the first book in a series, focusing on establishing the world, the characters and their relationships until a plot slowly coalesces around them. In the meantime, Zahabi accumulates mysteries, teasing the reader and seeding ideas until the time is right. While I struggled to find a hook through the first half, I appreciated the way Zahabi brought everything together in the final act; the groundwork laid to ensure I fully grasped the possibilities, loyalties and implications.
For all I class this as epic fantasy, this first volume is primarily interested in personal stories. From the perspective of world events and epic confrontations, The Collarbound is all set-up and no pay-off. Those seeking fast-paced adventure and big in-book arcs may be dissatisfied; but lovers of multi-book epic fantasy will enjoy the intriguing world building and mounting tensions.
However, it’s a book that has only grown on me as I’ve taken the time to reflect on it. Possibly the most interesting realisation is that I’m not actually sure who (if anyone) is in the right; in part because we only see the opposing forces through the jaded eyes of Tatters, whose history remains shadowed at best and deeply suspect at worst (yes, I am a suspicious soul and yes, I have my theories). Consequently, I think it’s a book that will reread remarkably well – and while I wasn’t initially sure, having sat with it I’m now very keen to read the sequel. Here’s hoping for new perspectives that give me a better understanding of the Renegades – and justice for the iwdan.
THE COLLARBOUND is out in the UK on May 12th from Gollancz. I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Check out more reviews of The Collarbound from other participants in the blog tour: