Since time before record, the worlds of Ki and Kur have been entangled. Every fourth day, the boundaries of space and time are disturbed, so that each world is seemingly transposed with the other, and an alien sun rises in its sky, with catastrophic results. The light of Kur’s star is deadly to the life of Ki, and vice versa; every contact between the creatures of the two worlds likewise produces only violence, corruption, and decay. Yet contact is frequent enough, on the fourth day when the barriers put up by nature are thin and porous. Over many years each world has been colonized by invaders born under its enemy’s sun, spreading disease and death.
Civilized life still exists on Ki, but only at great cost. For those who are unwilling or unable to pay that price, there are other ways to live as well—but they are far from pleasant.
This is a review of chapters 1-3 of Pyrebound, a fantasy novel originating as a web serial. When this post was first written in May 2019, it was still publishing
Web novels don’t get much attention. There’s Worm, and I guess you can count The Martian, but anything else, to me, is strictly niche, if I know it at all. So I’m excited to review Pyrebound, a recent and not-particularly-popular story, in more or less the same way I would review a typical novel. (Fun fact: Pyrebound, like most web novels, is free to read!)
Doldrums, Horror, and the Odd Beautiful Thing
Pyrebound’s world captivates me. Just the first two paragraphs — the quote at the start of this review — made my mind buzz with possibility. Immediately after reading that, I skimmed the glossary, and…ugh…so many strange ideas. There’s an ever-expanding list of Kur’s grotesque creatures, who pour into Ki, where humans (and some other strange things) are native. But there are also the deep ties to fire that humans have — physical fires, spiritual fires, fires that live, that inhabit objects and people. A human settlement protected by a sort of great fire-tower is called a hearth; a year is a bloom, and the term refers to blossoming flame; the world itself, with its deserts and two searing suns, might as well be on fire.
Pyrebound manages to introduce its world and concepts smoothly — though there’s a lot to get through, it doesn’t condescend, nor does it flit past things. …Well, okay, I do think that the first “night of dark dreams” went by way too fast, and too vaguely, for my liking, but the night in Chapter 2 made up for it. There are also lots of concepts that I’m dying to see more of, but I know that the author (Brayton Cole, or “The Red Sheep”) is playing the long game…and that this is a review of three chapters. It feels like more than that because each chapter is itself split into five parts, but, y’know.
But that’s just the setting — or some idea of it. What’s the story? We follow Ram, who’s hardly more than a boy and is, more or less, ordinary. His life is a hard one, but so is everyone’s on Ki. Even before his father’s injury forces him into the military of a city he doesn’t even know, Ram has to fight reshki, some of Kur’s comparatively less warlike horrors.
It’s not just the intro that grabbed me; all of Chapter 1.1 comes out swinging, literally and metaphorically, as Ram takes to the grim and even complicated task of dealing with foes that are not just seemingly amoral and, like, gross, but infectious, death-carrying. The scene where he kills a resh and disposes of its body is brutal, not in a blood-and-guts way so much as in the sense of “this is life — rough and tedious.”
That’s also some of my favorite stuff: the warfare. There’s no glory here, just brief and breathtaking times in which the nightmarish forces of Kur run up against Ram.
In some ways, the story reminds me of the manga Berserk. Berserk’s demons, though, aren’t outright alien. I also would never be tempted to call Pyrebound’s intro “edgy.” In fact, I find the fact that Ram isn’t constantly ramming his sword into faces — and that his face isn’t receiving the same from constant world injustice — refreshing. Heck, while his mother and father don’t have kind words for him and are clearly condescending they treat him with some level of respect, and may be as nice as parents in this world come. All this gives Pyrebound’s first three chapters an interesting tone, and a rhythm: town and family life that is often frustrating but can also be calm, punctuated by the long, exhausting times of war. It can get, I daresay, gentle.
Now Here Come All My Harsh Words
The way the story unfolds doesn’t always grab me. I love the slower, “gentler” reveals of gods and murrush, and the vague, disarming mention of moonchildren long before their first appearance. But there’s a part in Chapter 2 that introduces a lot of fresh faces and clarifies some terms, and to me it feels like a muddle. Revealing moonchildren like that, in a busy street with a brief exchange, was like poking a hole in a soufflé. Falling just as flat was that chapter’s humor — humor is 0.05% of Pyrebound, and there have been maybe five jokes across the whole thing so far, but I still wanna say, it has never gotten me. (Before you ask, yes, the more I read Berserk, the less I like Puck.)
Also…I dunno if this currently-minor character is worth an entire subheading or even paragraph for himself, but…he bothers me so much I’ve just gotta do it.
Gelibara: I Gave Him His Own Subheading (why?)
What’s the first stereotype that comes into your head when you think “eunuch?” Well, that’s Gelibara. He’s on the respectable side, and he’s a friend to men as well as women, but isn’t he still about the first thing you’d come up with — honey? Seems uncreative to me.
A Final Confession: Probing My Feelings
I remain aware that the author’s playing the long game. Still, the pace and emotions of the story I had in my head and the story that’s here on the screen are so different that I feel…kind of disappointed. What do I — what did I — want from Pyrebound?
For sure I wanted to see interplanetary politics — but we have every indication that those politics are coming. Critically, I wanted more of what I will call phantasmagoria, a nightmare sense, and the point at which nightmares infest the body. Going forward, I think I want more of Ram’s inner life, and to “feel” the experience of hardscrabble life in Ki more and more.
I’m excited to see more from some of the characters in the big street-meet in Chapter 2 I mentioned (and complained about). It’s about time Ram got personalities he can really bounce off of. Plus, the more characters enter the fold, the more chances we have to explore the inner-life stuff I was just talking about. Maybe we can learn the intimate experiences of someone inhabited by a fire-spirit, eh? Or maybe something even more off-putting?
Today’s Final Word
This is a promising read, and there’s every indication that The Red Sheep will explore his glossary to the fullest. So far, Pyrebound gets a shab contorting into the shape of a wheel to steamroll soldiers out of five. Go read it.
Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.
To probe my mind further about fantastical fiction, read my thoughts on the solo RPG Four Against Darkness, theorizing about ways to write cozier fantasy, and the freedom of writing for sheer experimentation.