Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bound in Darkness - Kim ten Tusscher

Last month I reviewed Kim ten Tusscher's debut novel Hydrhaga, which has recently appeared in English translation. The package the author sent me also contained a copy of her second novel Bound in Darkness. It is the first novel of the Lilith trilogy and a much more ambitious work than Hydrhaga. The Dutch edition first appeared in 2010. As of this year, it is available in English too. I'm not entirely sure if and when the other two volumes will follow. In my review of Hydrhaga I pointed out quite a few things I had problems with. Bound in Darkness shares some flaws with Hydrhaga but overall it is a step up in craftsmanship. Ten Tusscher has developed a much better grip on the plot and the pacing of the story.

The translation of this novel was done by Rianne Stolwijk. I read the Dutch sample provided on the author's website to get a feel for the translation. It looks like a more direct translation to me. The tekst of Hydrhaga deviated a bit more from the literal Ducth original. It's hard to compare the two as Bound in Darkness is better written, but from reading the original Dutch I got the impression Stolwijk is more used to translating technical texts rather than fiction. There is a fine line between literal meaning of the word and the author's intent. I think taking a bit more liberties with the text would have improved it. It's a matter of taste though. Stolwijk clearly has a good grasp of the English language and translating fiction always involves elements that can't be captured in the grammar and vocabulary of a language.

Lilith is on the run. She is desperately trying to escape her master Kasimirh, a magician forcing her into a life of servitude and violence to realize his religious ideals. While trying to steal food, Lilith is caught and in the fight that follows she nearly kills a man. The brother of this man brings her before the king of the nation of Merzia to face his judgment. To pay for her crime she receives a flogging and has to work off her debt to the king after he compensates the brothers for their loss and trouble. Placed in the care of the magician Ferhdessar and the head of the palace household Ghalatea, Lilith is safe from her former master for the moment but once again a prisoner. Kasimirh is not going to let his subject escape though. War is about to engulf Merzia. Another confrontation with her former master seems inevitable.

Once again Ten Tusscher picks a young woman as main character. Where Lumea appears to have had a reasonably happy childhood, Lilith's has been one of abuse. It makes the book a lot darker than Hydrhaga. The title of the novel is clearly fitting in that respect. Despair, guilt and paranoia are always close to the surface. Lilith's behavior follows a pattern seen in many victims of domestic abuse. On the one hand she fears Kasimirh and wants to be free of him, on the other he gives her the attention nobody else seems to be willing to give her. It results in a strange kind of dependance on him, one she spends the entire novel trying to shake.

There is a decidedly violent side to Lilith's personality too. She is a shapeshifter and can change into a powerful dragon. As such, she was very valuable to Kasimirh, whose dreams of world domination in part rely on her strength. She has been forced to wreak havoc on many a village in the past, killing countless innocent people in the process. The guilt of this weights heavily on her. It's one of the aspects of the story I had a problem with. Throughout the novel Lilith is being manipulated, tricked and forced to do certain things which results in the death of many people. At one level it is obvious that she would feel responsible for that but on the other hand the author is careful always to make sure the real blame lies with someone else. Lilith has quite a volatile character, it wouldn't seem that unlikely that she would make a genuine mistake at one point. The tragedy of many people who are forced to fight in a war is that they are both victim and perpetrator. I think Ten Tusscher didn't quite get the most out of her character here. The real tragedy is somehow always one step removed from her.

That being said, she is a much better developed character than Lumea. Ten Tusscher clearly put more thought into this character. More planning is something that is obvious in all aspects of the novel. I'm not sure there are people who can write a trilogy organically but Ten Tusscher clearly didn't intend to. She has a plan, the story has a clear direction and she completes the novel in what is both a natural break in the story and a hook for the next novel.

The worldbuilding takes a bit of a backseat in the novel. Ten Tusscher describes the religious roots of the conflict briefly and shows us how the political structure of Merzia works, but everything else remains in the background. There is an intense focus on the characters and the relationship between Lilith and the two manipulative magicians in her life that doesn't allow Ten Tusscher to get too descriptive. At times it makes the conflict seem a bit simplistic but especially in the scenes seen from the point of view of Ferhdessar hint at much more depth. Ten Tusscher leaves herself a lot of avenues to explore in the next two volumes.

After reading Hydrhaga I had adjusted my expectations for this novel a bit. Bound in Darkness is such a step up in quality however, that the novel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. So much so in fact, that I wonder if Ten Tusscher didn't do herself a disservice by having Hydrhaga translated. She might have been better off by starting with Bound in Darkness. Ten Tusscher seems to have found her stride in this novel. It is a solid start to the trilogy. Pick this one up and you'll be hooked for the entire series.

Book Details
Title: Bound in Darkness
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 279
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperbacl
ISBN: 978-94-907-6747-1
First published: 2010

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