THE COLLARBOUND by Rebecca Zahabi (BOOK REVIEW)
“If this was where she belonged, in the space in-between, then this was where she would hold her ground. This was where she would fight.”
The Collarbound by Rebecca Zahabi is a wonderfully imaginative novel which revels in mystery, intrigue and dazzling magic, set against the backdrop of a world torn by rebellion. This is a story of closely guarded secrets and of characters who are caught between two warring sides.
The narrative begins by Zahabi throwing her readers into the middle of events. We enter a strange world where mages, humans and a non-human race called khers, roam. Yet not freely. On a cliff near The Edge, stands The Nest, a castle where high mages offer their protection over the lands, where they train apprentices and rule with a firm hand. However, across the Shadowpass there are those who resist the Nest’s strictly governed hierarchy which holds mages as the elite and those without magic as savages to be oppressed. Rebellion is brewing, tearing lands in its wake. But are the rebels just replacing one tyrannical regime for another?
Amidst this turmoil refugees flee to the Nest in the hopes of escaping the bloodshed, at least for a short while. Yet one such refugee stands out from the crowd, Isha, a woman who we learn has lost parts of her memories, her past veiled in shadow, her face branded with an intricate tattoo, with no recollection as to what it means. When Tatters, who wears the mystical golden collar of a slave, sets eyes on Isha he immediately feels drawn towards her, her tattoo fascinating him, the feeling that he should know who this woman is. Tatters may be in hiding, and the strange presence of a young girl called Lal inside his mind may be deterring him from becoming involved, but Tatters is willing to risk all to uncover Isha’s mystery. Their pasts are surely connected and their fates just may be entwined.
The Collarbound favours uncovering secrets over high stake battle sequences, which nonetheless delivered a compelling slow-burn character driven story. Zahabi never gives away too much to her readers, we begin knowing very little about these characters or the world but as the narrative progresses pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. As Isha determines to become a powerful mage at the Nest under the tutelage of the questionable Sir Daegon, and Tatters desperately hides from the rebel Renegades we discover he was once a part of, Zahabi shows us that neither side is wholly good or evil, corruption and brutality run through both. The Renegades’ sweet promise of freedom and equality also comes with much bitterness, which I loved seeing explored.
Initially we are given terms such as kher and lacunants with very little context given behind them. We go on to discover the kher are a race of non-humans with horns, various shades of clay red skin and tattoos on their bodies. They are deemed as no more intelligent than animals, savage and undignified, derogatorily called cows which interbreed. They are subservient to humans, little more than slaves, the women are given guard duty whilst the men must remain lowly farmers. Yet Zahabi turns this prejudiced view on its head by weaving in layers of culture, tradition and religion to their race. During one of my favourite chapters, Tatters and Isha enter the kher quarters and it is here where we discover so much more about them and see for ourselves that this race is far more cultivated than the humans could ever be. We also learn the tradition behind their tattoos, which made the entire chapter fascinating. As for the lacunants, well their revelation is much more somber and gives us a great deal of knowledge as to what happens to mages who go too far or break the Nest’s rules.
Zahabi’s magic system absolutely captured me whole. The Collarbound features mindlink, a type of mind-magic where mages can enter another’s mind for various uses such as compulsion, telepathy, sifting through their memories or altering their emotions. There are a lot of elements to this form of magic and a lot of unique concepts such as soulsplintering, lightborn and my favourite of all, mindbrawling. (I’ll go into a bit more detail about what a mindbrawl entails in the next paragraph but if you’d rather not know, please don’t read that part.) Although this magic system is rather broad in its capabilities there are certain limitations put in place too, and to emit illegal usage there are lawmages, but it isn’t until later on that we uncover what happens to those who break the rules.
So, why was a mindbrawl my favourite part of the magic system? Well I loved how Zahabi used images and emotions as a form of fighting rather than physical violence. In some ways destroying someone’s mind is far more effective than destroying a body. You see, a mindbrawl begins by two opponents using a settler who uses his mind space as the arena for a mental brawl. They create a mental picture of a theatre, where the two opponents will duel. The two duellists then appear on the stage in the form their mind has conjured up – perhaps versions of themselves which are taller, plumper or slimmer. The two competitors then can conjure, for example, imaginary fire to haul at their opponent, or make them see a loved one dying, whilst the other can conjure up water to defend themselves or send imagery of their own. The two opponents duel until one of them becomes too overwhelmed to continue or cannot sustain the mindlink.
“They rested at the edge of the shrine, at the Edge of the world. As far as the eye could see, there was mist, fading into the light blue of the sky. The wind was so fierce that, for a moment, Tatters could believe it would rip his soul out of his body and carry it upwards. Part of him longed to jump.”
I may have initially become hooked into The Collarbound for all its mystery and magic but later I also found myself becoming rather attached to the characters too. Tatters, easily became my favourite character. At first he appears to be charming if not slightly cheeky, his personality is scarcely detailed but we get a sense that he is skilled in manipulating others and lying in order to hide his secrets and also to achieve what he wants. Given how adept he is with mindlink it is no wonder he is popular with the apprentice mages as everyone vies to be better than their peers. The presence of Lal in his mind also causes him much conflict as when performing mindlinks and mindbrawls, she often acts of her own accord which Tatters doesn’t appear to be able to control. As we learn more about who Lal is we see Tatters holds a past full of pain, a collared slave with a master, someone who has lost much more than just his freedom. Although he may appear aloof to the treatment of others, in truth he does care. Especially for the khers and Isha.
Tatters feels a pull towards Isha, and although for the majority of the novel Zahabi never quite makes it clear whether they are friend or foe to each other they nonetheless spend a great deal of time with one another. Isha’s is desperately trying to piece together her lost memories whilst also becoming a strong enough mage to defend herself against her enemies and those she longs to gain revenge upon. She’s strong, quick to learn and guards herself from others, yet through her POV we see a great deal of her insecurities. At every turn she faces prejudice, her tattoo mistaking her as a halfbreed kher, an outsider, Isha faces disdain from many. How must it feel to be consistently judged and hated upon for the way you look? For a branding you had little control over or even know what it means. How must it feel to be treated as lesser when you are so much more? On the outside it doesn’t seem to affect Isha, but on the inside her anger boils. Zahabi’s world, unfortunately like our own, explores racism and bigotry in its many forms.
As we reach the story’s climax Zahabi painstakingly left me wanting so much more. The Collarbound hooks it’s readers into a dark tale where characters are thrust into a play for power and freedom with both resulting in unjust devastation. Zahabi’s novel will delight fans of thrilling magic systems and imaginative worlds.
“Secrets are more precious than money. They’re the currency of power.”
ARC provided by Will at Gollancz in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!
All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Collarbound is out May 12th but you can preorder here: