If the sole purpose of a review was to help you understand if you would enjoy a book or not, I think I could have you out of here in a single paragraph. I believe your enjoyment of The First Binding, by R.R. Virdi, can be predicted with three simple questions. Do you like The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss? Are you a big fan of bards in media? And how do you feel about the following prose from the first page of the book:
“The worst sort of prison held the Three Tales Tavern.
And that is always meant to be broken.
It hung like a cord gone taut, quivering and waiting to snap. It was the quiet of held breaths, wanting for a voice, but ready to bite at any that dare make noise. It was the soundlessness of men too tired to speak and with an ear to hear even less. And all the stillness of an audience waiting for the play to begin.”
The First Binding is very clearly influenced by the same narrative storytelling structure as NotW and emulates many of its qualities, for both better and worse. Virdi really leans into the focus on stories and bards. The entire book is a smorgas-bard of content about fiction’s greatest storytellers and their importance. Yet, while I have seen many reviewers praising this book as one of the best things to come out this year, I came away from it regretting the huge amount of time I spent with this pretentious mess.
Our story is about Ari, and only Ari. Stylized as the world’s greatest bard, he is a tormented soul who carries the sins of the world on his immortal shoulders. He claims that all legends are born of truths, and just as much lies. And that he broke the world once, and that this is his story. And you are going to sit there and listen to him talk about just how awesome he is for 1,000 pages and how it makes him the victim.
The narrative is told completely from Ari’s perspective and is split into two time periods–the present where Ari is trying to seduce a hot nameless woman at a bar (we will come back to this) and the distant past where Ari is a poor guttersnipe trying to scrape by at a theater. The book spends a good 200 pages dicking around in the present trying to show off how cool and mysterious Ari is before it actually gets on telling the story within the story.
I cannot stand Ari. He is supposed to come off as a suave and charming storyteller that holds rooms in the palm of his hand with his charisma. It has been a long time since I have read a character that is this unpleasantly arrogant. He feels like the incarnation of the dude who pulls out a guitar at a college party and plays Wonderwall. This might have been excusable if Ari was supposed to be unlikable, but it is very clear very quickly that Virdi thinks Ari is the greatest and you are supposed to as well. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problematic characters in this story. One of the worst parts of NotW is Denna, the love interest that feels like it was written by a sweaty neckbeard who has never talked to a woman. The First Binding decides to try to one up this by creating a nameless female character whose purpose is to be mysterious and provide a grand audience for Ari’s masturbatory life story. It did not bode well for me that I could not stand the two characters who continuously talk the entire book. I thought this might be easier once we got to the story within the story, but the duo has constant commentary throughout the past sections that break immersion and drove me insane. I liked some of the side characters, but since they make up about 2% of the page space they are almost not worth mentioning.
I also cannot stand the prose. This is more of a personal issue for me, and you might actually love the prose. Please use the first few lines above as a gauge; there is absolutely nothing wrong if you like it. I just found all of it very pretentious and it made it very hard for me to get into the book. To me, the writing feels like someone writing to try to be profound without actually having much of substance to say. The story alternates between these huge verbose exposition dumps and dialogue that is just Ari listening to the sound of his own voice. The prose never clicked for me, but if you like it I suspect you will be like one of the many readers who absolutely love this book.
The worldbuilding is the one place that I actually found myself a little curious. Virdi has spent a lot of time building a cohesive and well-realized world with a unique magic system that many people seem to like. Bindings work like a sort of mental origami where you can fold space inside your mind to create different magical effects in the world around you. Combining bindings in tandem can create interesting new effects. I thought this was a fine magic system, but not one that compelled me to keep reading this story beyond all of the other issues I have listed. Similarly, while I was curious to find out the fate of some of the many peoples and kingdoms of Virdi’s world, that curiosity was very quickly killed by Ari’s voice telling the story.
Finally, a last small but possibly damning issue with this book is I don’t really know what it is about. There seem to be two core themes to the book: ‘Ari is amazing’ and ‘stories.’ The first theme is one I fundamentally don’t agree with and the latter is a classic but one that I have seen explored endlessly by other books I liked more. All of this leaves The First Binding feeling like a soulless bag of wind that isn’t worth your time.
I pretty clearly do not recommend The First Binding. I had a really bad time with it. However, from looking at the other reviews of the book I am obviously in the minority. As of writing this, it has one of the highest Goodreads ratings I have seen on a book in a long time. To all those people who are enjoying it I am very happy for you, but could one of you please come and explain what I am missing?
Rating: The First Binding – 3.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.