The First Binding consists of two interwoven narratives. Both of them are about Ari—a magician, a storyteller (in fact, The Storyteller, capitalized), and a larger-than-life figure of legend. In one thread, Ari arrives in a tavern midway through a long journey, where he meets a woman named Eloine. Eloine is beautiful, mysterious, and seductive, and is more than willing to listen to Ari tell the story of his past. The second thread is that very story. Ari’s childhood is full of danger and adventure. He’s an orphan and a member of the lowest social rung in the Mutri Empire, and he dreams of learning to work magic. He begins as a backstage worker at a theater, then becomes a gang member, then the head of the gang, and then a student at a magical academy.
The First Binding is fundamentally and obviously invested in fantasy as a genre—fantasy’s beauty, its opening of possibility, its gifts of power and empowerment. Its use of magic and its love of storytelling are plain to see. But The First Binding hasn’t learned anything from the past ten or twenty years, within the genre or outside of it. It’s perfectly happy to replicate the same old ideas about a lonely, powerful man, unlovable because of the things that make him great, coping with the ordeal of being too special. He deserves better than the world has treated him, and we know this because he tells us so, and because this is how this sort of story works.
Although the book is about Ari’s greatness and how he comes to it, however, Ari never feels particularly great. He writes his arrogance off as a fault and does nothing about it; he doesn’t manage to fully characterize the people around him beyond a few broad brushstrokes; he remains largely the same. He occasionally comments on his behavior, but to him, it seems, a simple comment ought to be enough to show depth of character and earn his readers’ sympathy. Instead, this lack of self-reflection makes Ari feel flat, uninteresting, and a little pathetic: it’s sad that someone who’s gone through all of the wild adventures he has still manages to be as shallow and puffed-up as he is.
His storytelling isn’t particularly skillful either, both when he speaks to other people in the story and when he speaks to us through the framing narrative. His poetry is often stilted and cliched, and yet it’s largely used to show off how talented and profound Ari is. This would be frustrating in any book, but because the book is about Ari being the greatest storyteller in the world, it’s particularly difficult.
Ari, of course, is also (undeservedly, obviously) unlucky in love, and he rails at women in general whenever he gets a chance. Women in The First Binding are a class that is fundamentally different from men, opposed to men, and yet ultimately in service of men. All men feel the same way about women, who are a foreign species. A few examples: “It’s worth noting: Men are utterly useless at aiding one another when it comes to matters involving the fairer sex”; and, “She’d taken a tone that spelled danger to any man with functioning ears.” Ari’s comments on Eloine are so blatantly sexist and so self-congratulatory that they read like parody; her dialogue isn’t much better: “The water plastered her hair to her skull, doing nothing to dull her beauty as it pressed her clothes against the lines of her body”; and:
She matched my laugh. “I’ve heard something similar from men before, but the following performances, mhm, lasted too short for my liking.” An impish smile spread over her with the light to match the one burning in her eyes. “I hope yours delivers something more fulfilling—longer.”
I blinked, cheeks growing hot.
It’s not proper for a storyteller of my caliber to lose their poise.
The book seems to be trying to infuse Ari with empathy and Eloine with depth and mystery, but it’s done without any actual perspective or depth. Eloine exists only for Ari and his story. “Everyone wants someone, just that right someone, to listen attentively with wonder and happiness [...] and listen without judgment [...] I think I found that person in Eloine.” Eloine is special because she is perfect for Ari—and in Ari’s mind, that means he treats her as she deserves.
We get brief snippets of Eloine’s point of view, which suggest that something more interesting is going on with her than Ari realizes, but these moments, to my mind, don’t make up for how Ari sees her. She’s the perfect vessel for Ari’s attraction: a perfect listener, a perfect performer, a perfect seductress, who’s smart enough to make Ari laugh but weak enough to need his protection. The sections with Eloine’s point of view show that this is a performance, too, and that Eloine has her own life and her own wants. However, these sections don’t do very much to dismantle Ari’s worldview. Instead they seem to be setting Eloine up to become an evil seductress who is then redeemed by Ari’s love in future books.
If the world has gay people in it, or trans people, they aren’t mentioned anywhere or considered in Ari’s worldview. The only nonbinary person is immediately treated as a sex object (though there are one or two other characters that are described as “more beautiful than handsome,” or the reverse.) The book’s fatphobia is noxious and frequent, especially when villains are involved. All of this makes the book difficult to read, but it’s especially difficult because of how invested The First Binding is in fantasy as a genre.
The First Binding is an obvious and intentional tribute to Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (2007). Virdi himself calls the book a love letter; a number of people have already detailed the similarities between these two books (see, for example, this Goodreads review). The books are indeed similar in their plot points, their characters, and many of their foibles: Ari and Kvothe share a similar self-centered arrogance that is taken by the respective narratives, but without using it for anything deeper or more complicated than a celebration of who the narrators are. The issue here isn’t that Virdi loves The Name of the Wind; the issue is that the book feels like a peevish pirouette backwards, to a time when this was what the genre expected and wanted.
For example: the most important god in the novel is named Brahm; the world’s map resembles our own south and central Asia almost exactly; the Mutri Empire is an extremely close cognate for the Mughal. There are multiple obvious correspondences to actual India here, and I'm certainly not the reviewer best placed to comment on them—I don't know nearly enough to speak to how well or how effectively Virdi handles all of this. It’s wonderful to see an epic fantasy that’s based in South Asian history (and the history of the Silk Road) rather than western and northern European history, and those details do feel more vivid to me than other aspects of the novel. But the book feels so worn-out and familiar to me that I sense that this fantastical India doesn’t run very deep.
The novel’s plot hinges similarly on worn-out fantasy tropes, and the novel does little to deepen them or comment on them, which is frustrating in a book that’s all about the art of storytelling. During the story of Ari’s youth, he skips from set piece to set piece with a bewildering amount of ease, and leaves the old ones behind without seeming to grow up very much. Each set piece—the theater, the gang, the magic academy—feels too flimsy to make a lasting impression, either on us or on Ari. In each place, Ari gains and loses a mentor, along with a friend or two, and undergoes some sort of violent tragedy that scars him deeply. The pattern is the same, and the details of each place and each supporting character are fleshed out only inasmuch as Ari notices them. And Ari doesn’t actually notice very much. He isn’t very good at imagining the people around him as full people, or at listening to them, or at turning their stories into anything more than a collection of tropes or an example of what an excellent scryer of people he is.
Ari has friends in his gang and at the magical academy, and he makes acquaintances at the inn, but they’re so two-dimensional that it’s difficult to believe that Ari cares about them as much as he claims to. Because Ari turns everything into a reflection of himself, we don’t actually learn much about the world or the people in it; and because Ari isn’t much more than an abrasive, obnoxiously talented antihero, the world doesn’t deepen him. He just moves from trope to trope to collect skills and titles: a performer, a thief king, a maverick scholar, dragon-feller, The Storyteller. But there is nothing surprising or unique about any of these stories. Ari just becomes an archetype in each place and then flits away to the next one.
This continues in the framing narrative, where Ari fends off rogues and soldiers at an inn, finds and flirts with Eloine (a lot), and then, at the end of the novel, gets dragged into a game of intrigue in the nearby city, involving clandestine flower messages and vague threats. These familiar elements don’t ever coalesce into a story with real character or heart. Each setpiece simply seems like yet another trophy to add to Ari’s wall of fantasy plot tokens; he continues not to change much or notice much beyond himself.
The pattern itself, as well as each successive iteration, becomes deadening. It becomes frustrating at best—and alienating and mystifying at worst—to see The First Binding glorying in the beauty and possibility of fantasy while also taking some of the worst of the genre and reveling in that too.