Soulbound is the first book in the series The Legend of Tril by Heather Brewer. I’ll admit, I requested this book because not only did the blurb (that I had access to at the time, which was nearly a year ago…) sound pretty cool, the cover was bafflingly interesting.
I mean- there’s chain mail over her face (do you have any idea how badly chain mail and hair go together?), random ribbon on her bicep, and she’s carrying a katana. How could I not request this book?
So, in the beginning of the book we’re presented with what appears to be a fairly generic, quasi-medieval, fantasy world. No magic, but there’s this bad guy named King Derrek who has monster minions called graplars. They talk about harvest festivals, a market, making and dying their own clothes, torches and candles are used, all buildings seem to be of stone or wood, medicine is all herbal, and they use parchment.
The human people are at war with this Derrek and his graplars. However, they seem to be there only for murder and mayhem, which is why I’m so puzzled by the idea of WAR. You don’t go to war on monsters that murder randomly. You just defend yourself.
Then there’s this little detail of Japanese flavor text. There are occasional Japanese place and family names sprinkled around, and there is a class of person who uses a katana.
Our main character is Kaya, which is the same name as the MC in a terrible story I wrote in my teen years. In fact, many of the main characters have the same personality traits and similar names to the people in the terrible story I wrote more than 15 years ago. Some plot points also hold some similarities, which I feel is more the result of trying too hard to make a spunky, capable female main character than anything else. Here’s a hint to the author and to teenage me: don’t make a strong female character. Make a strong character. Gender is irrelevant to the strength of character.
As further backstory, Kaya’s parents are both Barrons- fighter-types with a supernatural ability to withstand pain. Kaya is a Healer- someone who can heal the wounds of a Barron she is Bound to with only a touch. When Healers and Barrons are born at the same time, they are Soulbound- soulmates meant to spend their lives together. It’s absolutely forbidden, on pain of death, for two Healers or two Barrons to marry.
This is never explained. I went through the whole book wondering if it was a breeding thing, or a magic thing, or just a controlling-government thing, and never got an answer.
So Kaya and her parents are in hiding in a sleepy little town. Her best friend Avery is a girl who she kinda thinks is weird for being as into boys as she is. During a harvest festival, Avery gets killed by one of the graplars OUT OF NOWHERE, and suddenly Kaya is summoned to go be a Healer for real!
Her parents are held hostage to keep her behaving herself, and Kaya is shipped off to a place called the Shadow Academy, which sounds so sci-fi that I’m really not sure what’s going on any more. As if to emphasize that there is no rhyme or reason to the worldbulding, Kaya’s internal voice sounds like a valley girl, she complains about things being sexist, being shoehorned into the role of damsel in distress, and wears makeup.
…They don’t even have electricity, and she’s angry about not being taught math and science?
She also swears. A lot. But in cutesy ways. Rather than use the actual vulgar words that exist, the author has made up her own. Fak in place of fuck, dek instead of dick, and the entirely baffling terked off instead of ticked off. Yeah, that’s right. She didn’t make an entirely unclever reference to pissed off (pekked off? possed off?), she just censored the phrase ticked off instead. And then all the teenage characters used them liberally. I don’t remember a single page that went by without at least one of those replacement words being used. Fak this, fak that, I told him to fak himself, what the fak? fakking stupid. In general, I disagree with the statement that vulgarity is the sign of a lack of creativity and poor vocabulary, but in this case, it seems true.
In the summons, Kaya is informed that her Soulbound Barron is dead, and they’re going to Bind her to another Barron. Also, Healers are super, super rare so she has no other options.
Her guard fails to meet Kaya when her ride drops her off (And we never get to hear what said ride is- a car? Carriage? Shuttlecraft?), leaving Kaya to wander through jungle-like woods in an effort to make her own way to the academy. She’s attacked by a graplar, because they have supernatural Healer-sensing powers due to years of killing them off so the Barrons can’t get magic healing. But never fear! Kaya is rescued by a mysterious, white-haired, and incredibly handsome boy named Darius! He kills the graplar, and seems to expect Kaya to know him, and is disappointed when she doesn’t. But Kaya doesn’t care! She has anger and resentment and rebellion to be doing!
This is what passes for foreshadowing.
So, when she gets to the school, it turns out that the guard who was supposed to meet her is a kinda bitchy girl named Maddox, who sneeringly calls Kaya “princess.” But don’t worry! After they both appreciate a cute boy, they’re now best of friends, and the nickname is endearing!
Said cute boy is the new Barron that Kaya will be Bound to (but not Soulbound, because her Barron is DEAD DEAD DEAD, guys!). The next day he essentially gets tortured so Kaya can heal him, and they’re Bonded, yay!
By the next day, they’re now a couple, after nothing more than her thinking that he’s super hot and kinda nice, too.
He’s not really nice. He’s pretty condescending, actually. JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
You see, despite the claims that the incredibly rare healers are placed on pedestals and treated better than everyone, there is some serious Healer oppression going on.
-Healers are in no way allowed to learn how to defend themselves.
-If a group of Barrons are talking, they all have to agree to let a Healer join in before a Healer is allowed to talk.
-Healers are subject to strict behavior rules, including curfews.
-They are called insignificant.
-Barrons are constantly bullying Healers who aren’t Bound to them.
All those? Totally fantastic reasons for the people who are the only ones standing between you and death to keep on protecting you. Being helpless and bullied totally makes me want to help the bullies not get killed…
As a minor detail, the male teachers are called “Mr Name” and the female teachers are “Instructor Name.” No explanation has been forthcoming.
In any case, that mysterious, beautiful, white-haired boy from the forest is the expert katana instructor. He teaches all the Barrons, despite not at all being a Barron himself. He’s totally not. Really. This is entirely not a case of the author doth protest too much. And this entirely-not-at-all-a-Barron guy is cranky around our precious baby Kaya, and is horribly mean to her.
For the record, assigning a student who breaks the rules with extra gardening duties is now mean. (But we learned this from Snape.)
And, because he is so dreadfully mean, she decides to confront him. After curfew. At his cottage. Unchaperoned.
While she’s confronting him, a pair of graplars show up! Instead of calling for help or anything sensible, the TOTALLY NOT IN ANY WAY A BARRON guy hands his only sword- excuse me, katana- over to Kaya and tells her to behead or distract one of them while he takes care of the other.
Despite her lack of training, she kills a monster that is solely built to chomp. After getting the obligatory injury that requires her to partially disrobe so the guy who is mean to her can fix it. Oh, and BTW, she finds out he has a mark that shows HE IS A BARRON AFTER ALL. GASPSHOCK.
Anyway, she talks this mysteriously
not a Barron guy into giving her combat training because she is literally the only person in over a hundred years to think that maybe healers should have a chance to defend themselves. He agrees, because reasons. In a week she’s good enough with a katana to fight him to a draw while extremely pissed off.
Also she can beat Trayton (that’s the dude she was Bound to a week ago who she was immediately gaga over because he’s hot) when mysteriously
not a Barron decides that it would be a great idea to have them spar. Trayton, the rule-abiding, who will instantly report anyone for breaking the rules except his old friend Mel-something who is always flirting with him, even though she’s a Barron, too.
Kaya and Darius go on a mission that is basically just him saying “this is my angst!” They bond. Kinda.
The main character is exceptionally ignorant of empathy. Other people have experienced loss and pain? Well, she doesn’t like them, so whatever.
Kaya accompanies a bunch of Barrons out on a mission to take out some graplars. The fight almost goes poorly, and Trayton recognizes her fighting style from their previous sparring session (because he only heard her voice before, since she was masked. and despite them being a couple, he doesn’t recognize her voice because they’ve only known each other for a week), and takes off her mask and is shocked, SHOCKED, I say, that his healer would dare risk herself in combat. That’s what Healer-less Barrons are for!
As an aside: the spare Barrons are considered guards, and are also refused any sort of combat training, as their instincts are supposed to be good enough, and it’s presumed that combat training would allow them to run away if they wanted. SO. There are a ton of extra, useless mouths to feed. At least it’s not just Healers who don’t get to learn how to fight? These people must be dying to lose their war.
The book ends with the villain of the piece letting a ton of graplars into the academy and a huge fight ensuing. There’s an odd bit that I actually feel like I need to quote in order to stress the awkwardness of the scene. Keep in mind, this is only a week since she’s begun lessons in swordplay in order to fight murderous monsters.
Thinking fast, I brought my blade up just in time. It bit down on the metal just inches from my face. I thought that it might back off then, because the katana was cutting into the corners of its mouth, blood dribbling down the blade, down my arm and onto my chest. But the beast narrowed its eyes even more and pushed toward me, forcing the blade deeper into its own flesh. It didn’t care. It only care that its actions would bring its hungry jaws closer to me.
My heart was racing. What more could I do to stop the beast? What more could I do to save my own life?
I pushed hard with the katana, sinking the edge of the blade in deeper still, hoping to lop off its head, but I couldn’t get enough leverage on the blade, and drool was dripping from its jaw in anticipation of its next meal. Then, over the Graplar’s shoulder, I spied the Barron who I had saved. The tip of the katana’s sharp blade was sticking out of the side of its hungry mouth, and with precision, the Barron grabbed the tip with his hand. The metal sliced slowly into his flesh and blood poured out of him. He barely winced, and I was reminded of my parents and their enormous resistance to pain. He pulled the blade back, deeper into the beast’s mouth. The katana cut through the Graplar’s head cleanly, and with a gurgle, its giant body stumbled to the left before collapsing lifeless on the ground.
So, here’s the thing. People who know about katanas know that they are sharp on only one side of the blade, which means that it should have been possible for the Barron to hold his hand in such a way that would avoid the blade doing much damage to his all-important tendons. Also, if the blade was sharp enough to cut through the graplar’s head- HEAD- it would not cut slowly into his hand, if it cut his hand at all. It would slice through that mother like a bitch.
Oh, and they carry their katanas on their backs. Not a big deal, just another WTF moment.
And, in the midst of combat, people that no one has named or cared about dying all around them, Kaya demands an apology from Darius for the way he pitted Trayton against Kaya during one of their private training sessions.
And, after Trayton almost dies (Kaya’s Bound superpowers failing to heal him), and Darius almost dies (Kaya’s Soulbound superpowers totally healing him), the book ends in a moment of everyone going WHAT JUST HAPPENED.
And by everyone, I mean readers included.
And as a bonus, here’s a quote about Mel-something: “Her smile struck me as somewhat sadistic and absolutely surreptitious.” Why not just go for “certainly” and keep the alliteration going?
And for a secondary bonus, let’s guess who the traitor was! It’s not like we have many major characters to choose from…
Kaya, the voice of the book?
Trayton, the boy who follows all the rules even when it breaks his heart?
Darius, who is Kaya’s Soulbound?
Maddox, Kaya’s best friend who was a jerk for a whole day?
Melanie, the Barron who wants to get with Trayton?
Edmond, the guard who replaced Melanie?
Raden, a Barron who is only there to be another named Barron?
Headmaster Quill, who is SUPER into protocol and loyalty?
Mr Groff, a teacher who called Healers insignificant?
Instructor Harnett, who teaches the only class Kaya likes?
Instructor Baak, who is crazy, yells at people for no reason, hates Kaya with a violent passion, and apparently listens at doors so she can catch people saying nice things about Healers and yell at them?
…it’s not like that’s a TOTALLY OBVIOUS CHOICE or anything.