Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Review: The First Binding by R R Virdi

 R R Virdi’s The First Binding is a sprawling, extensive epic fantasy that investigates the power of stories by focusing on the life of an old storyteller with some rather unusual and rare gifts.


Ari has seen much in his life, and has a long and troubled past. Although he was once famous, once infamous, he is content now to be mostly a traveling, itinerant storyteller. Sure, he has a fraction of the gifts, the power he once wielded, but now they are (mostly) just for tavern tricks to help tell his stories to earn room, board and a bit of coin in the inns and hostels he visits on his wanderings. When he meets Eloine, a singer on the run with secrets of his own, he starts telling his very epic life’s story to her.

Ari’s story begins in The First Binding, a novel by R.R. Virdi

With that last line, I want to not bury the lede here and go for clarity here right from the first. While this is an 800 page epic fantasy (quite a jump up in size from the usual lengths Virdi works with), it really only covers a portion of Ari’s story and life, and the novel ends on a cliffhanger. If you’re good with those, please continue to read and listen to MY tale, MY story of how I came to engage with this book.  Are you seated comfortably?  Let’s begin.

Virdi takes the tack of starting with an old main character who spends most of the book in telling his story to the aforementioned Eloine, while in the midst of his own mission. At the Three Tales Tavern in Karchetta, Ari is looking for a story, an important story, a mythic story. One might say that the search for this story, and stories like it are his purpose, his life’s work, even as he is The Storyteller. People who are the definitive article of something, as Doctor Who tells us, are people who really should be respected, even if they are on the other side of the prime of their power and life (or so it seems). 

The telling of Ari’s life to Eloine, once it gets going, has a structure that while Virdi might be aiming for Schezerade (and hits the mark I do think), but more contemporaneously, I was thinking of one of the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach. In one of the dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise, the two characters read a story about themselves, and in the middle of that story, the characters start reading another story altogether, “going down one story”.  This sort of nesting stories allows the stories to comment on each other, comment on the action, illuminate the characters and sometimes leave the reader wondering at just what level we are and where the narrative is at any particular moment on a particular level¹

And indeed, this is the central axis on which the novel really works. We have present day Ari searching for a particular story. As the narrative of his early life unfolds as he tells it to Eloine, we find elements from that story reflected, refracted and commenting on the present day Ari.  A formative character in his early life is a Storyteller with the same binding gift. Part of his early life was living in a theater, and so he learned a love of the craft of story telling and performance that he uses in the present day. His time as a Sparrow, in a thieves gang, helps inform not only the present, but later on in the backstory when he finally achieves his ambition to attend a school to learn magic, Binding, for real. 

There is a real variety and path to Ari’s life that spools out over the course of the book. Virdi has carefully and craftily constructed a life for Ari that takes the form of several different kinds of stories, forming portions of a complex present day person’s background, skills, and outlook. It also allows this big epic fantasy novel about stories and the power of stories to play with kinds of stories within its narrative. A story about young and growing up in the interstices of a theater?  A story about a street rat (or more properly) Sparrow? A ‘magic school’ drama? We get all three of these at length, providing the foundations to the character. 

The Storyteller himself when he is telling short tales in the narrative, is at his heart a performer, going back to his theater days. The book takes pains to frame and show how Ari tells his stories, immersing the reader into the experience of the stories (which run toward the mythic) as well as the stories themselves. In Dungeons and Dragons terms, Ari is definitely a bard, but one that does not rely on music, but rather on how he speaks to convey his stories.  

This comes to an interesting contrast with Eloine, who is much more of a mysterious character (we get some short stuff from her point of view, but she is deliberately cast as a mystery). She definitely is a singer, and tells the short tales we hear from her in a musical tradition, contrasting nicely with Ari. We don’t quite get enough of her storytelling to really make a fix on different *ways* to tell stories, but perhaps that is for a future volume, as well as clearing up the mystery about her.² But we get a lot about the roots of the world in the stories they tell.

As you can guess, this also means there is also a lot of the worldbuilding that is done in backstories and the stories that are told in the main narrative and deeper down in the backstories, particularly with the Binding magic system. We see Ari use it in the present, but it is a slow, revealed process in the backstory as to how it actually functions and what it can do, what it cannot do, and what are the costs. The costs are quite important and are a central concern especially in the “magic school” portion of the novel. But that reflects and makes clear a couple of things that we see in the top level “present day” story, once again showing the skillful communication between story levels that Virdi attempts here. 

When not actually playing with stories and tropes of stories, there is some fascinating worldbuilding going on. Virdi has good and interesting ideas about levels of society, commerce, finance, trade and travel, and he has clearly put in a lot of thought in making his world hang together. Entrepots and mountain schools,dark alleyways and high courts, this is a world that richly comes to life and presents a vividly presented world. For all of its length, there is a fair amount of action, and dialogue and depth , the page count is not due to walls of words, but rather the size and scope of the stories.

I should emphasize that the stories told and the storyteller himself are in a very oral tradition and are stories that feel like they are meant to be heard. (this also ties into the spoken word form of much of the magic of the book). A different kind of magic and main character might have led this book to have footnotes a plenty ³ but this is a very oral book. Not only the rhythms of the stories told directly, but the rest of the narrative has that oral story feel to it. I would want to listen to a sample first, and it would be a very long book, but I think this book has the potential to be quite the audiobook. 

This book, by reading circumstance, came on the heels of reading Genevieve Cogman’s recent and latest Invisible Library novel, The Untold Story and the resonances between the two books were constantly in my mind as I read The First Binding. Both novels have Storytellers who are the Definite Article as their title, although here he is the main character and in Cogman’s work, she is merely a secondary character.  Both novels work strongly on the power of story and how stories can shape people’s lives, culture, and even the fabric of reality itself. Where they differ is that Irene is caught within stories, whereas Ari is trying to shape the story in a fashion that Irene might consider very Fey. 

The narrative stops at not only a propitious moment in the main storyline, but at a watershed in the backstory as well. I do feel of a  couple of minds about this. It’s an effective story technique, to get the reader to go to the next book, to be eager to find out what happens to Ari, in the present, and to reveal more of the backstory in his telling of tales. It also is somewhat frustrating given the structure of the novel. Having the cliffhanger in the present is a proud and clever technique, and our narrator and hero has been left quite in a predicament.  The (not even) half finished backstory, though, feels like an itch here--there are aspects to the character that we still don’t quite get and understand because their backstory is incomplete. Given the size of the novel (and presumably sequels), it is an opportunity and a risk to have a lot of this dangling that will hopefully be resolved in a second book.

The Math

Baseline Assessment:7/10

 Bonuses: +1  for strong resonant themes and exploring the ideas of Story and what it means

+1 for a richly detailed world

 Penalties: -1 Even given the size of the book, the story of Ari is very incompelete, which may frustrate some readers

 Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 Reference: Virdi, R R, The First Binding [Tor, 2022]

 POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

¹If you prefer a cinematic allusion, take a look at the use of level of Dreams in the movie INCEPTION

²While the back matter talks about the “Princess I loved” (who never appears in this book), this book makes it clear that Ari of any age is pretty clueless around women. Time and again, he fails to understand them and his relationship to them and vice versa. It’s obliviousness, not misogyny, thankfully, and it is rather funny. 

³The Jenn Lyons Name of Kings series comes to mind.