Madbond by Nancy Springer
Despite not really having a specific fondness for short stories, I loved Chance & Other Gestures of the Hand of Fate by Nancy Springer. So I bought more of her work.
Madbond is the story of a mountain hunter, Dannoc. Driven mad by some unspeakable trauma, he blunders into the domain of seal tribe with a strange weapon and nearly kills their king, Kor. This opens a whole can of worms, where he’s on rocky ground with the seal tribe while still being too amnesiatic to really leave.
Thankfully, unlike so many other stories from the 1980s and 1990s that ruin everything with absurd amnesia (I’m looking at you, Twin Peaks), Springer weaves a more careful tale.
Dannoc’s amnesia is clearly portrayed as more of an unwillingness to remember trauma than a legitimate lack of memories. Small, easy memories come back to him even while he flounders for his own name, and I was curious about what he couldn't remember for fear of remembering too much.
That curiosity lasted about 50 pages, at which point I wanted something more. Normally I’m fine with books that follow a gentle pace, but I think Dannoc’s unusual predicament (paired with a first-person viewpoint) stunted the sort of character and world building that will keep me happily turning pages even without an evident plot. No, Dannoc is shunned and not feeling great mentally or physically, so we mostly get to watch him sulk or rage.
There’s a fun carnivorous horse that helps keep things interesting, but she can only do so much. By page 70, I was so bored I procrastinated reading. That’s almost always a death sentence, but I wanted to like Madbond, and I liked Chance a lot, so I decided to look at existing reviews. Promises of an unconventional fantasy kept me reading, albeit without much enthusiasm. Until, all of a sudden, I couldn’t put Madbond down.
Somewhere around halfway through the book the world grows around Dannoc, and shortly after that shit gets real. It’s like Nancy Springer lined up all the things I like about her writing to reward me for getting through the, in my opinion, overly long opening sequence.
One of my favorite things about Madbond is the world. It’s curiously atrophying, and the inhabitants of it are limited to six small tribes. That’s it. And because the livable world is small, and there are so few people, they all know each other. Together, the tribes almost feel like they comprise a family. Sure, there’s that one brother that’s such a jerk, and that other one who could use to get his shit together a little bit more, but somehow you make it work because … you’re stuck with each other.
There’s also a lot of overlap between tribes, and you get to see various sides of the same mythology as different characters speak up. And damn, I like the mythology, too.
Another thing I loved about Madbond is how Springer handles her arcs. Most things come full circle, and more than that, most things have a point. They’re not always called out or played up, but everything feels carefully put together. For a story with a relatively small scope (at least in this book of the series), this attention to detail makes everything feel bigger.
I also like how one of the biggest themes of Madbond is platonic love and friendship, but at the same time it feels like a bit much. Sure, it takes a little bit for Kor and Dannoc to overcome how they met, but once that’s behind them it’s not days before Dannoc is promising to serve Kor for eternity. And not to repay his debt of near-killing Kor. No, it’s out of a sudden yet deep-seated sense of love and respect.
Don’t get me wrong, I love stories about men who are good friends with other men (The Seven Citadels series and The Wizard’s Shadow both come to mind), but this goes from zero to sixty so quickly I kept wondering if they were falling in love with each other. Which would have been okay--and would have explained the dopamine dump. But no, they’re just friends.
Friendship so pure that it almost seems thoughtless feels … unnatural to me. And I don’t know if that makes me a cynic or a realist, but regardless it means I don’t find reading about it particularly interesting. I adored how The Seven Citadels starred an odd-couple style friendship where the friends were irrevocably committed to each other despite not really having any commonality. That’s interesting to me.
Anyway, if it sounds like I’m dumping on Madbond, I don’t intend to. I finished it eagerly and ordered the rest of the books in the series. I loved the world, I loved the mythology, I’m vastly intrigued by what I think is the series-arc, and Dannoc and Kor are both very likeable. As is Tassida, a companion that I suspect will become a big deal in the subsequent books. I’ll probably just continue to skim the parts of the book where Dannoc and Kor profess their feelings for each other.
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Cover art by Kevin Eugene Johnson