The Oridian empire is greedily devouring its neighbours. The King of Alden, rather nobly, decided that Alden shouldn't start for that sort of thing (also, there were treaties and such) and leads his country personally into battle. And his reward for doing the honourable thing? The armies of Alden are getting absolutely thumped.
Alix Black, one of the scouts in Alden's forces, has a great perspective on the battle - not only can she see her own side getting thoroughly beaten, she can also spot how the King's brother is very much not riding to his aid. Clearly inspired by her liege's chivalric naivete, Alix sprints headlong down into the fray.
And that's how The Bloodbound starts: treachery, recklessness and mayhem.
Nor does it slow down from there. Granted, the book isn't wall to wall warfare, as the early pages might indicate, but Alix has a wonderful knack for getting into trouble (in her defense, that's apparently a Black family tradition). After the initial battle, Alix is reappointed as a member of Erik's (the King's) bodyguard. Through her eyes the reader gets a front-row view of the political and military action, as Erik tries to juggle an invading army, his own retreating army, and the betrayal of his brother (and his army). Add to that assassination attempts, espionage and a hint of black magic, Erik and Alix have their hands full.
To add one final ingredient into the mix - as a Black, Alix is a member of one of Alden's banner houses. Although she's more or less 'slumming it' as a scout (she should be all armor-and-horsed-up as a knight and whatnot), she still has all the perks - and responsibilities - of one of the kingdom's elite. In the perks category: a magic sword and a passing acquaintanceship with most of the key players in Alden. In the responsibilities? Try as she might, she's not 'one of' her comrades, and, somewhere on the horizon looms an inevitable arranged marriage. Alix is fairly understanding of the situation - that's just what happens with people of her rank, men and women alike - but it does cast a pall over her budding frisson with Liam, a fellow scout. Or, for that matter, Erik.
On paper, here's what we've got: the heroic remnants of a noble army, an invading empire of invadingness, a love triangle involving three people and sixteen thousand crossed stars, an eeeeeeeevil sorceror, a magic sword and a fairly Chosen sort of heroine that's a noblewoman/spy/scout/strategist/swordswoman/everything.
That is to say, nothing new under the sun. And there's nothing wrong with these particular plot points and set-pieces: The Bloodbound is one of the most enjoyable fantasies I've read in a long time; a book I cheerfully devoured in a single sitting.
But... and here's the thing with The Bloodbound. It isn't reinventing traditions, but it does bring them up to date. If anything, this is an immensely reassuring book. It provides all the high fantasy comfort we love, but with fresh, high quality ingredients and contemporary presentation. The Bloodbound is the gastropub of high fantasy.
For one, although The Bloodbound is by no means erotica, it also doesn't pretend that everyone is a virgin and consensual physical contact is a literary taboo. The Bloodbound treats sex and violence with equal weight. Sometimes this is 'casual': Alix kills people on the battlefield; she has a rendezvous with a sexy man-friend. Sometimes this is more meaningful: a sorceror's ritual killing affects her deeply; a midnight encounter in her tent leaves her equally touched. At the risk of generalising a little too broadly, this makes The Bloodbound doubly-exceptional. First, for not hiding the sex (so many fantasies are cavalier about killing but assume anything remotely risque is too naughty for readers); second, for showing this range of significance. Just like violence in fantasy novels, sex is a means of developing characters, demonstrating growth, providing entertainment, and creating powerful impact.
Another: although I wish it went without saying, Alix is still a novelty - a female character with agency, intelligence and capability. The Bloodbound also treats the equality of men and women with a lovely casualness. Alix has to deal with an arranged marriage - so do all the men and women of her rank. She saves Erik and Liam's lives. Erik and Liam save her life. And one another's. She's in the military - all men and women have to serve in the military. She has issues with romance, her upbringing, getting taken seriously - so do the male characters. Her agency is further reinforced as her love triangle heads to a conclusion: the menfolk swiftly realise that it isn't their decision who she loves. It gets to the point where, when the book notes that Oridians have an all-male army, it is a subtle piece of world-building; illustrating not that Alden is particularly enlightened, but that Oridia is stuck in the past.
That's actually another point in favour of The Bloodbound. There's very little in the way of explicit world-building. The various cultures and kingdoms are brought to life through details like the above or the occasional conversational snippet. No appendix. No map. The way magic works is explained in a matter of sentences, not chapters. Even the names are almost ridiculously simple, take, for example, the banner houses of Green, Grey, Black, White and Gold. The plot is complex, the characters are deep - but the world itself is there to support, not distract. Just as The Bloodbound hits the ground running with its opening battle, the decision to keep everything uninterrupted by exposition helps the pace immensely. The Bloodbound isn't a dense doorstopper of an epic, it is fast, fun and - despite being the first in a series - self-contained.
In fact I have a whopping two criticisms of The Bloodbound, lest you think I've grown soft. The first: I really dislike the cover. It is a little too old-school for me, and yet not in the way that makes me feel particularly warm and nostalgic about said old-school. My other issue is perhaps even more subjective: I think Alix up with the wrong guy. This is less a literary stance than one than an utterly personal one. I grew very attached to all of the characters, and, I suspect it is impossible to read through this book without choosing one 'team' or the other. Fortunately, although The Bloodbound is self-contained, it does hint towards future entanglements, and I can only hope that [redacted for spoilers] also has his chance to wind up happy in love.
The Bloodbound is - in its own right, a blast: a fun, fast, invigorating and inspiring book, packed to the gills with tension, heroics, twists and adventure. And, more than that, it is also a symbol of something more: an epic fantasy with all the scale and excitement readers demand, but infused with a casual modernity. It demonstrates that the genre - however familiar - is still far from fatigued.