Runebinder offers a dystopia quest story fueled by love, magic, and zombies.
CW: A vaguely Christian cult uses gay slurs.
One reason I love young adult literature is for the avenues of creativity. Genres are less clearly defined than on the speculative literature shelves, where it seems new genres regularly try to pin down genre-bending books. Runebinder creates a delightful mash-up: zombie horror, young romance, elemental magic, almost Divergent-esque dystopia, Anne Rice style of sexy incubus, with a dash of Harry Potter. If that checks all your boxes, this high-octane book will give you a great weekend read.
Runbinder opens with Tenn learning his elemental water magic is no longer under his control, but instead, is starting to control him. He botches a food-gathering mission when his team is attacked by Howls (essentially zombies created by magic), and though he is prepared to die, his water magic saves him and kills everything instantaneously—unheard of in his world.
Everyone senses this outburst of power—evil and good alike. A special squad of highly trained magic users shows up at his base to stop an impending attack from necromancers coming for Tenn but it’s not just zombies attacking. Two of the Kin show up, the most powerful Howls that look human and have more specialized powers than the lowly zombies. The Dark Lady, an evil goddess that created the dystopia and the first Howl, has sensed Tenn and wants him.
The base is overrun, but he is rescued by Jarrett and the twins Dreya and Devon, the best magic users Chicago has to offer. As Tenn’s power continues to act on its own, he runs off with Jarrett and the twins to find the Witches, a group of pacifist magic users who might be able to train him. Their gods have sensed Tenn as well. While he might not believe or want to be the chosen one, he will have to choose where he ends up, which side he will train and fight with—even though he only wants to stay at Jarrett’s side.
Runebinder moves fast. The pacing pushes characters among different locations and through multiple fight scenes. While the pacing gives the novel a sense of thrilling speed, it does not aid in the complex worldbuilding. Kahler has created a mash-up with some of speculative fiction’s favorite tropes, from zombies to witches, but it’s hard to keep track of all the details. Kahler makes two moves that aid in tracking the story—there’s a clear evil and Tenn’s emotional arc.
Now, I love a good villain, and Kahler provides two creeps in Matthias (a necromancer) and Tomás (a sexy incubus). Both follow Tenn as he flees across the Midwest, and by the end of the book, I was rooting for a final showdown. Overall, Kahler uses the creepiness of magic zombies and desolated landscape to build an effective eeriness and a landscape to enhance the villains.
Another of Kahler’s strengths shows in the character of Tenn. One of the ways that Tenn’s elemental magic acts up is by dragging him into memory. These flashbacks become meshed into the story, allowing for Tenn’s backstory and the world before the first Howl to be fleshed out. Overall, Tenn’s emotional desires become central as his physical need is simple—survival. His emotional life becomes more complex as he relives memories, falls in love with Jarrett, and struggles with the magical sexual attraction created by Tomás the sexy incubus.
While Kahler’s world is complex if not fleshed out enough, Tenn is the true center of the novel and his emotional plane drives the magic and power of Runebinder. At its center, it’s a magic-packed page turner, but with a refreshingly emotional heartbeat. Since this is only book one, there’s plenty of time to explore the world more fully in The Runebinder Chronicles.
Baseline Assessment: 5/10
Bonuses: +1 for Tenn’s emotional complexity, + 1 for love-to-hate villains
Penalties: -1 too little worldbuilding for so much mash-up
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10, “Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore.” Read more about our scoring system here.
Posted by Phoebe Wagner
Kahler, Alex R. Runebinder [Harlequin Teen, 2017]