Every time you blink, you’re sucked into an alternate world that’s as far from your suburban Arizona home as you can imagine. A world filled with magic and fear, living on the run as you protect the life of a princess in hiding who’s waiting for the opportunity to reclaim her throne. In Arizona, as a boy named Nolan, you’re diagnosed with a mysterious seizure condition. In the other world, the Dunelands, you’re Amara, a girl with strange healing powers that are harnessed to draw a horrific curse away from the princess. Amara has been ignorant of Nolan’s presence as a piggybacking ‘guest’…until now.
Welcome to the world of Corinne Duyvis’ Otherbound, which draws readers into a fast-paced back and forth between two radically different worlds, and existences. This is a story with a fascinating premise, but it’s nothing without compelling writing, dynamic characters, and a strong plot, all of which Duyvis provided in ample form. There’s a lot to tease the senses here as a reader, and there’s lot for the sensibilities as well, with a disabled teen of colour as the main character, in an era where discussions about diversity and representations of a myriad of life experiences in teen literature are growing heated and complex.
On Earth, Nolan struggles with the consequences of his ‘seizures,’ living in a world where he’s constantly zoning in and out. He can’t focus on schoolwork, he’s not all there for his family, and he’s spent his life feeling like his whole family walks on eggshells around him. Plus, his family isn’t extravagantly wealthy, so they have trouble paying for his treatment, especially when it comes to costly experimental medications — and before anyone accuses Duyvis of not understanding the US medical system and Obamacare because she’s Dutch, as a disabled person she’s intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the medical system and she did her research thoroughly, including research on whether insurance companies pay for experimental medications for medical conditions that aren’t fully understood or diagnosed.
In addition to having visions every time he closes his eyes, Nola is also an amputee, courtesy of a vision that sucked him into the Dunelands at a particularly inopportune moment, leading to a serious leg injury. Thus, he navigates the world not just as someone who’s viewed with suspicion and discrimination because of his neurological problems, but as an outcast because of his leg. Like many amputees, he also can’t afford a variety of legs like a different one for sports, which limits his mobility and ability to interact with his fellow students.
In the Dunelands, Nolan is a helpless passenger inside Amara’s mind, living the life of a servant who’s had her tongue cut out so she can’t tell secrets, though she, like other servants, is adept at a specialised form of sign language. While he’s spent much of his life watching, one day, everything shifts, and he’s able to break through, take over, and interact directly with Amara’s world. This sets off a chain of events that upends Amara’s whole life, exposes state secrets, and breaks open the reason why Nolan was sucked along in Amara’s wake for his whole life.
Duyvis is great with worldbuilding, create a rich, well-imagined world filled with distinctive and fascinating characters. She’s unafraid to take risks, and there are parts of Otherbound that are extremely dark and troubling, just as there are others that manage to be more light. She’s also done her research well, working with people from a variety of backgrounds to add verisimilitude to her diverse characters, right down to trying to capture aspects of the Latino experience in the US, and describing the daily life of an amputee in a way that’s not obtrusive in the text, but still comes through clearly.
This is part of a new generation of young adult literature that’s consciously diverse, but isn’t trying to make an issue out of it. Nolan is who he is not so that Duyvis can score diversity points or draw attention, but because it’s natural for his character and identity. He’s not disabled so he can send a special object lesson to readers or teach people about hardship — he’s disabled because that’s who he is, and because that’s one of the costs of his ability to flit between worlds. Amara isn’t mute to provide another example of a disabled character: she’s mute because she was forced to become a servant as a child and brutally violated by a dominant social class that wants silent servants who won’t disturb them, and don’t tell tales. The differences in skin tone and cultural background in the Dunelands also aren’t there to be used as a political tool, but to add to the depth and complexity of the world.
These are the kinds of books I love to read, and these are the kinds of books I like to see more young adults exposed to. They’re for readers who want to see themselves in the text they read, and who, for once, want to see themselves simply as characters, not as Special Diversity Opportunities. These are about characters who just happen to be bisexual, or Latino, or disabled, or transsexual, but who are more focused on having adventures in complex, beautiful, horrible, wonderful worlds filled with fascinating people and objects.
In order to create diversity in YA fiction, we need to be willing to write about it, and to take it to the next level. Duyvis has done that here, with flying colours.
Note: Corinne is a personal friend and this book was provided for review courtesy of the publisher.