Author: Becky Allen
To put it simply…Mad Max meets Ella Enchanted.
Granted, that probably caused more head-scratching than it solved, but if it intrigues you enough to keep reading then my work here is done.
The history and hierarchies in this book were a little confusing to wrap my head around, so I’m going to lay the foundation up front. Generations ago, there was a civil war over the magical Well that feeds the land’s aquifers. At the end, the victors (the Avowed) cursed the vanquished (the Closest) and their descendants with enslavement. It’s not just physical enslavement – the Curse is a powerful work of magic that compels all Closest to obey any order given by an Avowed, and prohibits them from speaking in front of an Avowed unless asked a question. Even then, they can only speak the truth. There are also the Twill, who rank above the Closest but don’t have magical jurisdiction over them.
Jae is a Closest who serves Lady Shirrad’s household at the Aredann estate. It’s at the edges of the kingdom, far from court intrigue. This would be a good thing, except the life-giving aquifers are drying up, and the world is very nearly bone-dry. The Well needs to be renewed, but nobody knows where to find it in the unending desert wasteland. In lieu of an actual renewal, the ruling nobility have decided to magically redirect the aquifers to cut their losses and preserve the inner cities. The Highest (i.e. King) has sent his son Elan to deliver the bad news – Aredann’s Avowed and Twill must abandon their home and withdraw to the capital. The Closest will be left to die.
Jae is perversely happy to hear of their impending fate. All her life, she has been controlled, and death will at least bring freedom from that. But when she accidentally unlocks magic of her own, a whole new world of possibilities opens. If she can keep her new power a secret until the Avowed and Twill leave, she can try to keep enough water flowing to Aredann to allow the remaining Closest to live in peace and freedom.
Unfortunately for Jae, Elan discovers her power and begs her to help him find and renew the Well, thus saving the entire kingdom. But saving the kingdom means preserving the status quo, and Jae has no interest in helping maintain the Avowed’s rule. She would gladly sacrifice the world if it means she and her brother, Tal, could experience a few years of freedom. Nobody else matters to her.
What follows is a wrenching series of choices and sacrifices, some coerced and some freely made. Jae eventually agrees to help search for the Well, though it is by no means an altruistic gesture. The places Jae encounters on the journey, combined with her newly awakened power, reveal a set of earth-shattering truths that threaten to destabilize everything the world is built on. Will she do what is required to save the world’s overlords and innocents, and can freedom be won in the process?
Jae is the first character I’ve encountered in recently memory that truly fits the description “angry heroine.” There are lots of YA orphan maidens who are sassy and don’t take crap off anyone, who maybe even swing swords or wield magic, but Jae is markedly different. She bears a bone-deep resentment toward the Avowed, and rightfully so. Her selfish protection of Tal is intense and meaningful, and their relationship is the driving pairing of this book, which I found to be refreshing and very fitting.
She still knew, deep down, that Tal’s life outweighed everything else. The other Closest, the Well, the Curse.
We are thankfully spared any attempts at cramming a romance in, which would be painfully out of character for Jae’s deep-seated fury. Elan is openly curious about Jae, but author Becky Allen does an excellent job of highlighting the rift between them, and Elan’s ignorance of the breadth of the Avowed’s power is presented as a deficit rather than an excuse. One of the most poignant moments of this book is centered around the fact that an Avowed member of Lady Shirrad’s household takes advantage of the Curse’s power to rape the female Closest as he wills. Elan is dumbfounded, convinced the monstrous man was an isolated case, and Jae is savagely blunt with him.
“No one in my father’s court abuses power like that,” he repeated.
“Of course they do,” she said. “And if you’ve never noticed, it’s because no one’s ever taken advantage of you.”
The main detractor of this book is the confusing opening, as all the different words for classes of people are flung about and not fully explained until later. It Also Really Likes Capital Letters – Avowed, Twill, Closest, the Well, the Curse, the Highest. But underneath the slightly over-fantasized naming of everything, the world of Bound by Blood and Sand is gritty and unforgiving, and Allen does nothing to sugarcoat that.
The crippling, dehumanizing power of the Curse is presented baldly, not allowing any leniency for Avowed who don’t realize the wrongness of what they’re doing, as Lady Shirrad does when she takes Tal to her rooms most nights. Jae’s revelations about the true nature of the Well perfectly fit the phrase “history is written by the winners.” Speaking powerfully to institutionalized discrimination, Bound by Blood and Sand delivers a heroine who’s ready to go the distance, and hits hard at those who would blindly accept privilege without looking at its cost.