The following review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.
In the Five Kingdoms, previously the setting of Rob J. Hayes’ Ties That Bind trilogy and now the setting of his new collection of short stories, The Bound Folio, injustice is a daily occurrence and the entire world can quickly become your enemy.
Throughout The Bound Folio’s eight-story connection, readers are introduced to lone protagonists battling the oppression of the powerful and struggling to stay alive. Of course, in Hayes’ world, that doesn’t at all mean that we see the same antagonists throughout. In the introductory story, “The Sword of the North”, the arbiters – the magic-wielding representatives of the church tasked with seeking out dark magic and destroying it – clearly play a menacing role. In the final story, “Black Blood”, our protagonist is an arbiter battling pirates and reanimated skeletons alike.
In the grim world of the Five Kingdoms, everyone has the potential to be a villain.
“The Sword of the North” kicks things off by introducing us to Derran, a young man whose father is not only a merchant lord, but also a drunkard. When his father suspects that Derran’s sister Leesa may be a witch, Derran learns first-hand the true power of an arbiter.
“A Game of Poisons” sees a mysterious man pit two legendary assassins against one another – with the survivor earning a massive payday. When the two assassins come face to face, finally finding someone who understands the trials and tribulations of the profession, they begin to share stories. But how long can it be before the violence begins?
“The Kid” introduces us to a city street urchin who seeks vengeance after the gang he runs with betrays him. Too small to avenge himself merely through violence, he finds a way to use the city itself against his bullies.
“The Battle of Underbridge” features a collection of squires briefly enjoying an evening at the local pub. Like most young men, they spend much of their time fighting amongst themselves – until the wights come, and the squires find themselves on the front lines.
“The Merchant of Truridge” is another revenge tale, this time featuring a young merchant’s son who sees his life upended, and is determined to avenge himself upon everyone involved.
“In By My Life and My Bloodline”, our protagonist, a Drurr warrior, truly finds herself alone as she seeks to hide her queen’s children from her own people. But hiding amongst the humans means hiding among the enemy.
“You Never Forget Your First Time” tells the story of a young woman sent to a school that was supposed to teach her how to serve a prince and become a queen to her people. But Shian soon finds herself at odds with one of her instructors, and goes to incredible, terrible lengths to return her cruelty tenfold. I was surprised to find this was my favorite story in the collection. It was a different tale than the rest, with the stakes seemingly less than the other tales. That is until Shian’s frustrations overflow and she attacks her nemesis using the skills she has been taught. Somehow, the story that looks like it will be the least violent in the collection become the most memorable for me, especially after Shian realizes the consequences of her actions.
The collection concludes with “Black Blood”, in which an arbiter finds herself working alongside a pirate crew to find a book of dark magic. But while Arbiter Beck plans to destroy the book, the pirates seem to have other plans.
One of the most impressive aspects of this collection was the consistency of the stories. I genuinely enjoyed all eight, especially seeing the different ways each of the characters approached their problems. Revenge was a common theme throughout, but the protagonists were forced to gain that revenge through a variety of means based upon their backgrounds, age and skill sets.
Even better, each entry tells a complete story. Too often, I have been frustrated by anthologies with “stories” that are really just a brief scene featuring a popular character from the author’s previous novels. In The Bound Folio, each story tells a definitive narrative. The character’s entire story may not be complete, and readers may find themselves wanting to read more, but each tale comes to a genuine stopping point.
A British author, Hayes previously published his It Takes a Thief duology and The Ties That Bind trilogy before Ragnarok Publications re-issued all three books of The Ties That Bind. He is now working on a new series, Best Laid Plans, featuring the pirate Drake Morass. The first book of that series, Where Loyalties Lie, will be released December 13, 2016.
The Bound Folio demonstrates Hayes’ strong storytelling ability and offers a wide range of options for future novels. The characters from “The Sword of the North” will probably show up in the Best Laid Plans series, and the titular kid may well have already appeared in one of Hayes’ novels. But regardless of whether we see these characters again, Hayes brings readers on a heck of a ride with a violent, morally ambiguous collection.