Author: Bridget Collins (website / twitter)
UK Publisher: The Borough Press
Genre: Fantasy, historical fantasy, LGBTQ+ romance
Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.
In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books and memories are meticulously stored and recorded.
Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.
This review contains some spoilers.
This book has been promoting a huge amount of buzz on twitter since last summer, when the Borough Press took the decision to send out hardbound, embossed and foiled ARCs (advanced review copies) to various members of the industry. They were utterly stunning, and people began to take notice – if the Borough Press were willing to spend this much on just the ARCs, on the copies given away for free, they must be confident in the content. It must be an absolute belter of a book. People could only imagine what the final copies would look like (They’re beautiful, naturally – the image above is just the dust jacket design, the book underneath is embossed and foiled too).
Strangely, I heard/saw very little about the actual content of the book to begin with, but when I researched more about it the design choices made sense – it’s about book binding, so the form is as important as the content in some ways. Imagine a book about beautiful bindings in something other than a beautiful binding. It would be counter-productive to have a narrative which constantly describes beautiful books be presented in anything else, or the reader might find themselves feeling somewhat short-changed in the matter. It’s possibly also worth noting that whilst this is Collins’ first adult novel, it’s not her first rodeo by a long shot – she has a proven track record with YA fiction, so the outlay on these ARCs was a calculated and measured risk. If you are a debut author, I wouldn’t expect this sort of treatment for your first novel! Foiled paperback ARCs also followed, using the same cover imagery, which is still quite fancy for an ARC, but not necessarily uncommon.
The Binding has three parts, but unlike books like Crazy Rich Asians where the parts seem largely arbitrary, the parts mark out distinct changes in the narrative or the timeline. The first half is the ‘present’ narrative from Emmett Farmer, the second is the ‘past’, where we discover what memories Emmett has had bound away, and the final part is back to the ‘present’, this time from Lucian’s perspective. There’s an interesting dynamic balance as well – in the first part Lucian remembers whilst Emmett does not, in the second both of them are on a level pegging, and then in the final part Emmett remembers whilst Lucian does not. The balance of power shifts from each side of the relationship and the narrative shifts with it.
We first meet Emmett after a summer of an unknown illness, which has rendered him with gaps in his memory, blackouts and left him feeling weak and drained. He wants to get on with farming, for things to return to normal, but he worries his parents think he isn’t up to the task any more. When a letter from the local Binder arrives, saying she wants Emmett as her apprentice, his parents seem upset, but he has to go. Half-finished, cryptic sentences, explosive reactions, and an order from his father later and Emmett is packed off to a house in the middle of nowhere, him and a tiny old woman – Seredith, the binder.
It becomes clear as time progresses that this is not our world – we hear vague discussions about the Crusades, but these are within living memory, and whilst we are never given detailed information on them, we are led to believe that they are to do with books, and binders.
The readers perhaps twig before Emmett, but that might partly be because we have the benefit of the blurb to guide us. Visitors come to the house, meet with Seredith, then leave. When they arrive they’re fraught, distraught or tortured; when they leave they are glassy-eyed and blank, they seem hollow. Emmett is suspicious and unhappy – he remembers his father’s anger when he was caught with a book as a child, and he hears what the people say about binders. When Lucian Darnay appears at the door, for some reason he causes a relapse of Emmett’s illness. Lucian is bound, and Emmett expects to never see him again, as he comes to terms with his new life as a binder.
The first third of the book is about Emmett seeming out of place, untethered, and constantly shifting – from farm to bindery, from bindery to town, he seems to be unable to find his stride, and when he begins to he is moved again. Everything seems difficult for him, and he feels disconnected. Joyless, and entirely reactive. He’s almost entirely passive and nervous. You could easily believe that’s exactly how he’s always been, until his binding is revealed.
The central third of the book helps us realise that Lucian Darnay was a more significant character than was expected from his initial appearance. It follows his first meeting with Emmett, the summer before, and their burgeoning relationship, as it progresses from dislike, to cautious friendship, to something romantic and sexual. This is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere on the cover or in the promo for the book, and I feel like it’s a shame. This is a gay romance. Perhaps this is meant to be a twist, because the first third of the book gives us no indication, but the remainder of the book discusses the relationship and then the fight to reclaim it after both parties have had their memories of it bound away. I wonder if there were concerns it would alienate a broader audience if it were advertised, whether by being more open about this element it would automatically become a niche book – filed under LGBT fiction rather than General fiction. (Whilst it is a fantasy, I have a sneaking suspicion it is going to be promoted as general fiction rather than genre fiction, which might support the idea that they wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.)
I have mixed feelings about this – it’s actually nice to see a book with an LGBT romance being championed with such vigour, with such faith and force behind it (the only other recent example I can think of is Girls of Paper and Fire, which is also a fantasy book but is strongly marketed as fantasy, as opposed to this which is not. It also doesn’t mention in the blurb about the LGBT romance). Strategically, I can understand that the world is not the place we wish it was and by being more open about the content the publishers may lose market because readers would simply think they wouldn’t identify with it, it would automatically become a smaller release, and unless it became a viral sensation, or gained the traction of something like Call Me By Your Name, would possibly at best be a cult hit. So I suppose this is almost like a guerilla tactic, getting people to read gay romance without them realising what they’ve got. They’re halfway through before the romance even becomes explicit – it’s all in misinterpreted looks and half-finished sentences prior to that, a fanfic reader would spot it, but perhaps not someone who isn’t expecting or used to spotting UST between male leads. Once you’ve read half the book you’re invested, you might as well finish it. It’s almost the literary equivalent of Rickrolling, you start one thing and end with another.
My reasons for focusing on this is because this romance is essentially the plot. The relationship between Lucian and Emmett is what drives the entire story. The first third of the book is just set up, positioning Emmett to be reunited with Lucian. Without it, the plot would instead perhaps focus on Emmett’s journey and development as a binder. That is mostly not in the book.
I enjoyed this piece a lot, the characters were interesting, I was invested in the plot, but I almost wish there was more. I wanted more of Seredith and to see Emmett actually learning the trade properly, I wanted to see him grow and regain the confidence he had apparently lost. I also felt the ending was a little abrupt – the main issue was resolved but it didn’t address the ones which naturally followed it, and followed it quickly, some based on their actions, some paused from before their bindings and now relevant again. What happened next? Where did they go? What did they do? What about their families?
I do not know if Bridget Collins intends to do a sequel to this. I am not sure it really needs one, or what would be a natural plot to follow it. The things I wanted to see more of were either expansion of the world, or just loose ends that I felt were left untidy. I will be interested to see how it fares in the world, and if Collins intends to spend any more time with Emmett and Lucian. I can’t say I would mind spending more time with them either, but otherwise I can easily imagine my own happy ending for them.
- An intriguing, low-key fantasy novel with an interesting premise that is executed well. Collins takes one aspect – the bindings – and extrapolates from there how they would fit into society. It’s a light touch, but it works very well.
- The characters are well-rounded, and the romance plot is something I do find myself rooting for. It’s easy to do, both Emmett and Lucian are sympathetic and appealing characters, and I enjoyed the chance to see each of them from the other’s perspective.
- For me the only thing lacking was perhaps an epilogue which tied up all the loose ends that were left, but as I do not know if there is a planned sequel this could do that and expand further on the world.
Rating: 4/5 – if a sequel is in the works to answer all the last questions I have, then perhaps I could bump this up to a 5, because I really enjoyed it.