In the world of the Dunelands, Amara was sleeping.
Striding through the Walgreens aisles, Nolan wished he could do the same—just curl up in bed, shut his eyes, see nothing but the insides of his eyelids.
No: see nothing but the insides of Amara’s eyelids. He hadn’t seen his own in years.
If he hurried, he could buy the notebooks and get home before Amara woke up. He stopped by the office supplies, adjusted his backpack, and hunted the shelves for the right kind: hard-backed, easy to stack, and with thick enough paper that his ink wouldn’t bleed through when his pen paused at the same spot too long.
“Can I help you find anything?” A perky salesclerk appeared to his right.
Nolan offered a smile. Not quite his teacher-smile, but close—he didn’t visit stores often enough to have a sales- clerk-smile. All these fluorescent lights and shoppers made him uneasy. If something happened in Amara’s world, he had nowhere here to hide. At least his school had bathrooms. Sometimes he even got to use a teacher’s office. When the disabled kid said he felt a seizure coming, teachers listened, if only out of fear that Dad would threaten to sue them again. (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)
The first fantasies I remember reading, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, were portal fantasies. There was something about being a young child and being whisked away to a different world, with different rules, customs, and beings. Oh to escape the tedium of fourth grade (on a very different note, Judy Blume was a godsend about that age) and the now-petty worries of pre-adolescence. No parents, no bossy adults, nothing but the freedom to explore and to have adventures. Yes, there is something very enticing about portal fantasies.
But what about those who in our too-real lives who do not have this freedom of movement? Would there be perhaps an even greater appeal to go somewhere else, be someone else, be in a place where your real-world difference is mitigated or at least not castigated as it is here? As a child, my interest in portal fantasies was selfish; I dreamed of places suitable for the likes of me. As an adult, however, with decades of experience with children limited here due to their physical appearance and presumed capabilities, I have come to see the greater appeal that portal fantasies and their escapist qualities have for those who have viewed differently because of their ethnic origin, physical appearance, or socio-sexual attachments. Therefore, when I read Dutch writer Corrine Duyvis's first YA novel, Otherbound, I was reminded at several points that there are children of all sorts and shapes who dream of traveling to somewhere magical, being the hero or heroine in a tale of their own.
Otherbound's premise is relatively straightforward: a Nahua-descended American boy, Nolan, has discovered that whenever he has seizures, he enters into the mind of a young servant, Amara. The opening chapter immediately makes it clear that this will not be a standard tale of a hero/heroine from afar entering through the portal to save the world in the fashion of great white hopes of countless tales. Duyvis is very careful to avoid the tropes of that field: communication, empathy, and cooperation are the core traits here.
The narrative does contain some touchstones for readers, especially in there being a nefarious enemy that threatens Amara's world of the Dunelands. But what Duyvis does with this is establish that Amara is a very independent girl whose life, difficult as it is, is hers and hers alone to live. We see, through her/Nolan's eyes her lovers, her bucking up against restrictive social confines, all things that have traditionally been muted or left out of most portal fantasies. In addition, Nolan is not just an occasional escapee to another world; his often-difficult life is shown in great detail. He is a tough yet sensitive individual, one who refuses to be defined by his two disabilities (he has had a foot amputated in addition to his seizures). The two, after Amara recovers from the initial shock of realizing that she has been observed her entire life by Nolan, figure out a way to work together to defeat the evil threat. There is no portal hero taking charge from the natives; Amara and Nolan's cooperation shows them to be equal in determination and in agency.
Duyvis narrates this tale with a clarity that is impressive for a debut novel. The scenes flow together nicely and while certain elements may be overly familiar to certain readers, for those middle grades readers, say 10-13, the reading experience may prove to be magical. Otherbound is also notable for its mixing in of "non-traditional" elements (non-binary gender, same-sex orientation, non-Caucasian protagonists, disabled individuals) in a fashion that feels organic and integral to the narrative without being too noticeable for being anything other than elements in a well-told tale.