Hello Humans! Today’s book review, as you’ll have seen from the title, is for Bridget Collins’ The Binding. This is an adult historical fantasy, not a genre that I have read a great deal of, but it leans more into the fantasy than it does the historical so it wasn’t outside my comfort zone in any way. This book falls into my mental subcategory of ‘books that are about books’, you know the kind I mean? Books about libraries and books and things, where you can tell that the author is an avid reader and loves books as much as the reader does. I’ll get more into how Bridget Collins explores this idea later in the review, but you must be wondering what this book is about?
Imagine you could erase grief.
Imagine you could remove pain.
Imagine you could hide the darkest, most horrifying secret.
Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.
But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.
I finished this book unsure of how to rate it, there were a lot of elements that I really enjoyed and some that didn’t sit so well with me, I ended up giving it three stars on Goodreads but it’s more leaning between three and four depending on what you focus on. I’ll try to explain in this review but forgive me if I seem to topple between love and slight dislike!
The Magic. The worldbuilding in this book is clear in the summary, books are captured memories, taken from their previous owners and bound up either with love or with a lack thereof depending on the kind of binder you go and see. I loved this idea. Bridget Collins manages to write one of these ‘books about books’ in a world where books aren’t exactly revered, instead they are either kept secret and safe in the vaults of binders or peddled on the street for a fee. I loved the analogy to people selling their teeth or hair (or more than that) but instead, they are selling their memories. I thought it was interesting that very rarely does a binding take place actually on the page, I think I’m right in saying that Emmet performs one binding in the whole book? In some ways, I was dissapointed not to find out more about the system of binding and the magic of it all, but I can see how it wouldn’t have fit in with the character or the plot as such.
The Romance. I spent the first half of this book (perhaps just the second third) convinced I was being queer-baited, I thought I was reading too much into it, that it was going to be something other than what I wanted and that I would end up cross. But it wasn’t! Rarely am I so delighted when two characters kiss. Of course, I then spent the remainder of the book waiting for one of their tragic demises, because what else have I come to expect from historical fantasy? I won’t spoil the ending for you, because I think this is a book worth reading for yourself, but I was not annoyed at how the romance played out.
Treatment of Women. I think this was the sticking point for me. I don’t think a single woman in this book has anything nice happen to her at any point whatsoever. It is possible I am misremembering, but as far as I recall the general consensus among the wealthy in this world is that you can treat your female household staff as you like and then you just bind up their memories until you’re fed up with them. I will admit, it’s entirely plausible that this kind of thing would happen were this magic real, and it’s deliberately uncomfortable to read, but the other women, who amount to more than household staff, have an equally rough time of it! I would have appreciated a female character who had more of an impact on Emmet’s life through means other than being hurt in some way?
For those concerned, any assault (save one, which I think was written as a consensual encounter rather than not) takes place off-page and is more heavily alluded to.
That third point was what stopped me enjoying this story as much as I wanted to. I think the writing itself is very good, I think the story is well crafted, the pacing makes for really interesting reading. It’s something not everyone enjoys, but I personally like getting to read chapters worth of characters memories (I’m reminded of Daughter of Smoke and Bone) and this book makes that particularly heartwrenching.
I certainly got to that stage where I couldn’t stop turning the pages because I had to know what happened to these characters, so evidently, I thought this book was compelling. With just a few added tweaks I think I would have absolutely loved this book, and perhaps it suffered from being part of a chain of books in which women were treated in a less than ideal manner? If you are at all interested, I would suggest giving this a read, it is a difficult book at times but the ending is worth it.
My rating: 3 (3.5?)/5 stars
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
The Binding publishes on January 10th so there is still time to preorder!
What say you? Is The Binding on your TBR? Let me know in the comments below!