Have you ever wanted to be a magician? Now, I’m not talking about the children’s birthday party entertainer getting paid $8 an hour to hold off a horde of snotty kids and bored parents with just a bunch of balloons, a beginner’s magic set, and a cheap suit absolutely drenched in terrified butthole sweat.
No, I’m talking about fantasy magicians, the ones that hurl fireballs, battle mysterious monsters from ethereal worlds, and somehow manage to look way cooler wearing dusters and trench coats than you ever will. There are a lot of series out there about fantasy warrior magicians but being a proud Australian, I’m repping one of my own and looking at Bound by Alan Baxter.
Now, a real quick point to make about writing. It’s a hard slog through draft after draft, slaving away to make it as perfect as you can get, only for some dickhead on the internet to pick it apart. As one of these internet dickheads fortunate enough to be given a platform of more than ten, I’ll be doing just that.
An important distinction to be made when reviewing an author’s work is separating the author from the work. In my own works, I’ve had a character’s arm submerged into boiling hot tar, and I definitely do not want that to happen to me. It definitely applies to Bound - this book has multiple sex scenes between the main character and a shapeshifting creature known as Kin. I’m fairly confident Baxter doesn’t want to do it with a Kin (not to kink shame).
So as you may have picked up on in the last sentence and a half, this is definitely written for a more mature and adult audience. It’s not really a young adult type of book and definitely not a children’s book. Maybe back in the turn of the 20th century when children’s life expectancy was just long enough to be killed in no man’s lands across Europe… anyway back on topic here, let’s get into the review.
Alex Caine isn’t exactly what you’d call your typical heroic protagonist. He’s rougher around the edges than Arthur Dent was in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. He’s Australian (ugh), not English, for one thing… oh yeah, and he also fights in illegal underground cage matches for money which, again, doesn’t paint him in the best light.
Luckily for Caine, he’s a character in an intense fantasy urban thriller novel. Instead of taking and receiving beatings on the daily for years before finding freedom in a shallow grave or shadowy ditch, he’s visited after one match by enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby. The visit isn’t to discuss the best places nearby for a spot of tea however, it’s a more serious matter. You see, Caine has a secret vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they even think it. Now it turns out that Welby knows about this secret vision and has a job he needs Caine’s help with.
In a mere instant, Caine is swept up into a world of breathtaking magic and power well beyond what he considered the realms of possibility. With events rapidly twisting and turning their way out of Caine’s control, it isn’t long before he’s down one Patrick Welby, up one mystical book of cosmic horror linked to him forever.
However, the universe is nothing if not a hopeless romantic and that’s when Caine meets Silhouette. How did they meet, you ask? Like all the greatest love stories, it was over the body Caine had just murdered, which Silhouette ended up snacking on… I’m just going to pencil both of these characters in as “anti-heroes.”
From that fateful moment onwards, Caine is pulled deeper into this mystical world, tangling with Kin packs around the world, a monster known as the Subcontractor, and his employer - the affluent Mr. Hood and Ms. Sparks. The thing is, however, once you get as deep as Caine is, there is only one way you escape.
Straight off the bat, I really enjoy the magic system in this world and the way everything revolves around it. It’s a very well-thought-out and imaginative system that I haven’t seen much of in this genre. The way magic is handled in the novel depicts it with symbols of magesign floating around in the air and physical barriers depicting magic wards. For me, this helped ground the magic as tangible, and I felt myself getting pulled into the world Baxter has crafted.
I also like how Baxter makes the magic widespread and commonplace enough that gets it away from the typical trope of magic being a secret that hardly anyone knows about. Mages are common enough in this world that cottage industries have flourished on creating wards for protection and other guns for hire, as it were. I also enjoyed that magic isn’t always an inherent gift and can be built upon by study and the pursuit of knowledge. All of this together really got me invested in the world and is easily my favourite part of the novel.
In terms of the plotline and characters, it’s not exactly Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Caine’s journey throughout the novel mirrors the standard hero’s journey template pretty much perfectly, and sure, it’s a simple plot, but it’s smart to use a simple plot as a foundation and then use characters and world-building to flesh it out. There weren’t any major plot twists that shocked me (apart from one intense scene towards the end), yet I was still entranced and wanted to keep reading.
I enjoyed the development of Caine and Silhouette’s relationship throughout the novel; although it was telegraphed very early on, the characters were fleshed out enough in the novel that it didn’t feel like Baxter was just checking boxes. Caine and Silhouette lean on and support each other throughout the novel in a healthy way that I enjoyed watching.
The novel’s not without its faults, however. The main antagonist, Mr. Hood, feels more like a background player than the big bad of the novel, and there doesn’t feel like there’s much connecting Caine and Hood apart from the book Caine has linked to him, but I would have liked to have them meet a little earlier before the final showdown.
Mr. Hood’s relationship with his secretary Ms. Sparks made me uncomfortable reading it. For me, it felt out of place in this novel full of magic and monsters to have this horrible relationship between these two characters. I feel like Baxter was trying to get this to feed into a wider arc for Ms. Sparks in earlier drafts, but it must have been scrapped when nothing comes of it in the end.
With Caine being a cage fighter, you would expect the action scenes and choreography to be tight, lean, and with as little fat as possible, Unfortunately, while the action is impactful and enjoyable, it does get just a little bit too over complicated at times. There were a couple of times when I had to read some sentences twice just to make sure I could clearly understand what was happening.
However, all that squared away, this doesn’t get in the way of the novel being a really fun read. I mean, it would have to be for me to have read this 323-page novel in one whole day, which I haven’t done since Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. I’d recommend picking this up and giving it a go, especially if you enjoy some urban fantasy.
What are some of your other favourite fantasy novels? Have you read anything else from Alan Baxter? Let me know down below.