Alex Caine is a fighter with an edge – he can see what his opponents will do before they do it. He doesn’t question this much – it is the way things have always been, and it helps him to win.
It’s only when he angers a mob boss and meets a mysterious and rather pushy Englishman that Alex starts to explores his abilities more deeply. His limited pre-cognition is just one manifestation of his mostly-untapped magical potential. There’s very little time for him to explore these new abilities though – almost immediately after being introduced to the world of magic, he’s on the run, chased by monsters and accompanied by a blood-drinking shapeshifter. Thrown headfirst into events that no one thinks he can control or survive, Alex has to learn, adapt, and fight harder than ever before.
Alex Caine is not exactly a typical urban fantasy protagonist, from his clothing to his attitudes. His background’s different, and he tends to solve problems rather directly; there’s lots of punching. I’m thankful that he actally bothers to find out information – I’m sick of heroes who wait around in confusion, not lifting a finger to help themselves.
Bound is not a low-stakes narrative. Within a couple of chapters, the conflict changes from “angry mob boss” to “world ending deity of destruction”. Alex’s power flourishes with similar speed; he starts of having only a minor edge over other fighters, but quickly learns to move invisibly and drown entire islands. To be honest, I’d have preferred everything to accelerate a little more slowly – I’ve got a soft spot for origin stories, and Alex’s introduction to a whole secret magical world is rushed through at speed, without much time for sight-seeing or gradual character/plot development.
There is a lot of plot jammed into a single book here, with multiple antagonists taking turns and pivotal scenes taking place all over the world. It feels, occasionally, as though the plot could have been stretched over two, or even three, books. With every event taking place in a single volume, some events that would have benefited from more time and space don’t really have their full impact. This means that some scenes drag, because they don’t have space to do anything else, and others feel as though they are superfluous. Bound feels like a list of events, rather than a deliberately structured narrative.
Some scenes, though, are very well done. Without wishing to give too much away, one set of antagonists, introduced towards the end of the narrative, is fantastically creepy. They’re original (as far as I can tell), disturbing, and have a real sense of threat. Genuinely creepy and dangerous obstacles are something of a rarity in urban fantasy; and it’s good to be presented with a chilling villain every once in a while.
There’s a lot of magic in the book, but it tends to be quite simple, and not dwelt on much. I’d have liked more of this as Alex discovers and experiments with his abilities; he showed a lamentable lack of imagination in a few places, sticking with punching rather than throwing fire. The way magic works is explained, but a deeper focus on magic from both the author and the character would have been appreciated. One of the major draws of fantasy is the magic, but Bound tends to gloss over the actual exercise of arcane power; the coolest bits happen off stage.
Overall, I find myself with mixed opinions about Bound. In places, it drags or handles things clumsily. On the other hand, there are moments of originality shining through, and a character origin that’s more creative than the usual.
Bound is the first of three books, and I am interested to see how the author manages power creep – the difficult with having meaningful stakes when the characters keep on getting stronger. It’s more of a problem for this book than for many others, as there aren’t many places that Alex can go, power-wise. Almost from the start, he’s exceptional, and he only gets more so. I’m not sure how the second book can keep up the tension, but I am curious about it.