Sarah Raughley’s 2014 debut novel, Feather Bound, is a standalone young-adult urban fantasy.
The Davis sisters have survived a difficult childhood (no thanks to their alcoholic father). Each sister has reacted in different fashion. Ericka marries for money; Adriana works to earn enough money that she need not depend on her dad; Deanna is left behind, stuck with the responsibility for the feckless father.
It’s Deanna who attends the funeral of their father’s estranged best friend, magazine magnate Ralph Hedley. She is present when Swan-activist Shannon Dalhousey accuses Hedley of being a feather-stealer. She is also there to witness the surprising appearance of Hyde Hedley, Ralph’s son (he was believed to be dead).
Nineteen-year-old Hyde is back from wherever he spent the last few years and he has a lengthy to-do list. One of the top items is seizing control of his father’s company. He also intends to rekindle his friendship with Deanna. She was his only friend in the days when he was just a rich weirdo.
Deanna is not all that interested in getting involved with Hyde. Jerk that he was, he never bothered to send her even one letter letting her know he was alive. It’s also relevant that Deanna has just discovered she is a Swan, one of the unlucky three percent with a genetic predisposition to a bizarre medical condition. When stressed, Deanna sprouts white feathers. If anyone should happen to pluck one of those feathers, Deanna would be compelled to be that person’s loyal slave.
Deanna’s condition makes her a potentially useful tool for Hyde’s malevolent cousin Anton Rey. Anton has no desire to see his father forced out by Hyde. Having discovered that Deanna is a Swan, he makes her an offer she cannot refuse: betray Hyde, ruin Hyde’s public image, and end Hyde’s attempt to take control of the company. Or else Anton will sell her to his human trafficking connections. Swans command top dollar in the sex slave market.
Deanna feels little loyalty to Hyde, but she’s not stupid enough to think that Anton will ever stop trying to use her. One way out is to reveal all to Hyde, hoping he will protect her … but she is not sure that she can trust him. There’s one other option; recruit Shannon, the Swan activist and take matters into her own hands.
Feather Bound has an eye-catchingly beautiful cover and a regrettable blurb on Angry Robot’s site.
“a dark debut reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, and the twisted truth behind the fairy tale of Cinderella.”
The first half of that blurb is perhaps raising reader expectations a trifle high for a debut. The second … Raughley isn’t riffing on a poor girl who ascends to riches thanks to poorly fitted footwear. She’s playing with folktale themes about animal wives and magical victims. But as authors don’t write their own blurbs, we’ll let that go.
The first parts of the narrative reminded me strongly of Quimchee’s (entirely mundane) romance webtoon I Love Yoo. I had to stop reading the webtoon so that I would not confuse the plot lines. Raughley’s novel long predates the webtoon and I cannot imagine there’s a causal link. It is just one of those meaningless coincidences of theme I often encounter.
No explanation is ever given of Swans. Avian imprinting as magical compulsions, yeah, I get that; but mammals sprouting feathers is weird1. What is clear is that life as a Swan is pretty horrible. There may or may not be laws against exploiting Swans, but they don’t seem to be vigorously enforced. Of course, they would be hard to enforce. The compulsion to serve extends to protecting one’s owner. Bound Swans won’t snitch.
Deanna is focused on her own problems. Don’t expect her to save the world or care all that much about Swandom in general. In her defence, not only has her father’s weakness left her reliant on her own resources for much of her life, the family connection with Hedley means she’s grown up in contact with people far richer than she is. If there’s one consistent thread in this book, it is that the rich didn’t get that way by being kind or ethical; she may have absorbed something of that outlook.
Feather Bound is very much a novice’s novel; the plot is resolved by some time-worn tropes, tropes that seem less plausible since 2016. (You cannot expose the rich to shame if they are shameless; it seems that different laws apply to wealthy Americans than to poor.) Still, there are enough points of interest that I will be tracking down the author’s subsequent books.
1: When in doubt, blame horrifying fungal infections. But it’s probably just magic.