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Literature / The Homeward Bounders

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The Homeward Bounders is a novel by Diana Wynne Jones.

"You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner."

When Jamie unwittingly discovers the sinister, dark-cloaked Them playing games with humans' lives, he is cast out to the boundaries of the worlds. Clinging to Their promise that if he can get Home he is free, he becomes an unwilling Random Factor in Their deadly, eternal game.


Jamie travels alone until he teams up with Helen and Joris, determined to beat Them at Their own game. But Their rules don't allow Homeward Bounders to work together.

Tropes include:

  • Abusive Parents: A lot of Helen's trauma comes from her father resenting her for her "deformity" and constantly threatening to abandon her as a child.
  • The Ace: Konstam. Before he actually shows up, Joris tells endless tales of Konstam's intelligence, wealth, heroism and daring that make Helen and Jamie roll their eyes. They're shocked when they finally meet him and realize that Konstam does indeed live up to his reputation.
    • The reason Adam has such a Cain and Abel relationship with his older sister Vanessa is because he sees her this way, hence the Black Comedy of him listing off all the traits that would make her a valuable prize as a slave on Joris' homeworld. Sure enough, once Konstam actually shows up, the two overachievers start falling for each other immediately.
  • Adult Fear: Your child goes out on an errand one day and never comes home.
  • Aerith and Bob: Characters with familiar-sounding names like Jamie, Helen, Adam and Vanessa alongside odd ones like Joris and Konstam. This is justified, because "Helen" deliberately chose her name to fit in better in worlds where English is spoken (her name in her native language is Haras-Uquara) and the other characters with familiar names all actually come from England in our world.
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  • After the End: Jamie and his friends briefly end up in a world that's experienced a nuclear holocaust and have to quickly flee to avoid radiation poisoning. Jamie says it's not uncommon to come across worlds suffering from the ravages of war, thanks to the nature of the games They play, and while this one is the worst he's ever seen, it nevertheless must have human survivors somewhere — it's not like Them to trash a "game board" completely rather than finding a way to reuse it. It's implied that a disaster like this befell Helen's world immediately after They took control of it before they repurposed it as a Death World; Helen's people are familiar with the concept of radiation, and Helen says her magical left arm may be a radiation-induced mutation.
  • Aliens Speaking English: It turns out that the English language is fairly common across The Multiverse, and Helen, whose people have a great deal of knowledge of other worlds, specifically learned it for this reason. Partially justified by many of these worlds being Alternate Timelines of our own, although not always (Joris is a native English speaker with an American-sounding accent and his world is a Magitek world haunted by demons). Also averted; while Jamie is speaking to "him on the rock" he realizes they're not speaking English but a Primordial Tongue that They also speak, which he has a hardwired understanding of as a Homeward Bounder.
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  • The Alleged Car: Vanessa's "unpoetic" car. Jamie, despite not being familiar with modern vehicles, identifies it as one of these on sight.
  • All Myths Are True: Throughout his travels, Jamie meets religious and mythological figures such as the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman and Prometheus, whom he ends up rescuing from his chains and torture.
    • Ahasuerus also describes the nature of the curse that's been put on him as "the Mark of Cain", although whether this means there's any truth to the story of Cain and Abel or Cain was ever one of the Homeward Bounders is left unaddressed.
  • And I Must Scream: Him on the rock. Who turns out to literally be the Trope Codifier from Greek mythology, Prometheus.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Adam to Vanessa. He crosses a bit of a Moral Event Horizon when he makes a serious attempt to sell her into slavery just to be free of her.
  • Arc Symbol: Their symbol is a nautical anchor. It goes with the Arc Words, "Hope is an anchor." The Flying Dutchman's crew refuse to keep actual anchors on their ship because of it; it crops up in unexpected places too, like an anchor being the symbol used for Joris' Slave Brand.
    • We don't get to see it, but the demon hunters' symbol (which their culture knows as the word "Shen") is also this. Shen is not only functional Runic Magic that gives its wearer resistance to demons' (and Their) powers, there's a Wham Line at the end of the book that it's been the same language as the Bounders' hobo-sign all along, and is a variant on the never-used symbol Jamie knows as "You Can Tell Them You're a Homeward Bounder" — i.e. it's a symbol for knowing the truth about Them and fighting back.
  • Artistic License – History: The Flying Dutchman is supposed to be the name of the ship, not an epithet for the captain — although, of course, Jamie only heard the story of the "Flying Dutchman" as a child, it may well be the version of the legend in our world is the one that's garbled, and by the time he ends up in a conversation with the Dutchman himself about it the gentleman probably doesn't care either way.
  • Attack Its Weak Point: The man on the rock is bound with magical adamantine chains that are both unbreakable and enchanted to banish anyone who touches them to another world. And yet all the chains are attached to a single anchor in the ground, which is not made of adamantine but of common iron that is gradually rusting apart. This is intentional; Prometheus staring at the anchor and hoping it will break someday is the whole point.
  • Bittersweet Ending: They are defeated, but Jamie has to keep wandering from one world to another, watching his friends age and die around him, in order to keep 'the real place' everywhere.
  • Blessed with Suck: Helen's "gift" is quite useful (particularly at the end of the story) but her father shunned her for it, and it played a large part in her getting exiled to the Bounds.
  • Brand X: The "fantasy adventure game" Adam compares Helen and Joris' worlds to is clearly Dungeons & Dragons. (Helen even calls herself a "cleric and magic-user", with "magic-user" being a term specifically associated with D&D's first edition.)
  • Captured by Cannibals: This happens to Jamie and Helen on the first world they travel to together. Because Jamie had never had to learn the Bounder sign that warned against cannibals before, he leads them straight into their trap, and thereafter Helen takes a pretty dim view of his "expertise" as a Homeward Bounder.
  • Cassandra Truth: One of the ways that They manipulate things is to make it so that nobody is able to believe a Homeward Bounder if they try to explain about who and what they are. This is broken when Helen shows Adam her "gift", which is too fantastic for him to explain away as nonsense.
  • Chekhov's Gun: When Jamie is sentenced to become a "discard" we overhear Them discussing how there are only four empty slots left on the "bounder circuits", and after Jamie a new rule will come into play only allowing new discards under extreme circumstances. The next two new Homeward Bounders Jamie meets, Helen and Joris, are both extremely dangerous to Them in ways he doesn't initially realize. Forcing Them to fill the last slot and overload the circuits turns out to be the key to defeating Them.
  • The Chosen One: Helen's gift makes her uniquely qualified for destroying Them and helping to end their rule. Jamie might count as well, but he's really more of a Spanner in the Works.
  • Contrived Coincidence: After arriving back in his Home, not that he knows it at the time, Jamie and the others take a train and get off at a random stop. They just happen to run into and become allies with Jamie's great-great-nephew.
  • Cool Big Sis: Whatever Adam might think, Vanessa becomes this to the other main characters in about half an hour. She is friendly and calming, makes them feel better about themselves and is happy to listen to their problems and sob stories.
  • Corrupt Church: Helen discovers Their hideout inside the House of Uquar in her world, upon which the priests of Uquar banish her to become a Homeward Bounder themselves, and she has come to believe that the Uquar religion's teachings are a lie and the whole church is just a front for Their machinations. She's wrong; while They did infiltrate the church as a cruel taunt against what they saw as a defeated enemy, the priests have no idea that they're being supernaturally manipulated, and the Uquar teachings actually are true, including the prophecy saying she's the Chosen One who will undo Their work and free her world. She even gets to meet Uquar in the flesh in the end.
  • Crazy Homeless People: Ahasuerus is one of the eldest and in theory most knowledgeable of all the Homeward Bounders, but Jamie laments that the Time Abyss of his long, awful life has left him nearly incoherent and therefore useless. But then, of course, his babbling turns out to be more insightful than it seemed.
  • Creative Sterility: Him on the rock explains that They suffer from this — they're parasites incapable of coming up with new ideas, and the Schizo Tech that runs their HQ is all stolen from various human civilizations. Even their supernatural, godlike ability to manipulate The Multiverse from outside it isn't an idea they came up with, but a twisted implementation of an idea he came up with, which is why he believes he partially deserves his centuries of torture.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: It turns out that, while "Rule One" and "Rule Two" are more complicated than Jamie understood them to be, the principle behind them also applies to Them themselves. As long as you're officially a Homeward Bounder, you're an integral piece of the system undergirding Their Real Place, leeching the realness of The Multiverse away to keep it real, and They cannot kill you. Since the size of the "bounder circuit" is determined by the number of Them in existence, and the number of Homeward Bounders and Them has just reached parity, this effectively means every one of the Homeward Bounders gets a free shot to kill one of Them before They get to retaliate. As soon as Prometheus and Jamie open a pathway into the Real Place along the Bounds, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Helen refuses to wear anything but black clothing and regularly adorns herself with live snakes and spiders, but she is definitely one of the good guys.
  • Death World: Life in Helen's home dimension is like this. Justified in that They literally set this world up for brutal dungeon-crawl challenges and Battle Royale Games. And they inflicted this brutal fate on this particular world because it's the one where Uquar/Prometheus taught humans most of his knowledge about The Multiverse before they caught him.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Jamie's seen a lot of awful things in his travels, but he's still taken aback by how slavery is casually accepted in Joris' world — which has the most powerful Big Good human civilization in the setting — and how Joris shrugs off the Unfortunate Implications of everything he's saying about it (like how the skillset he describes for typical female slaves makes it pretty clear they're being sold as Sex Slaves). To be fair, Konstam's demon-hunting family, the Khans, is said to be fiercely anti-slavery, but it's not clear whether they just personally eschew the practice or they're actually doing anything to abolish it.
  • Demon Slaying: Konstam comes from a long family line of professional demon slayers, and trains Joris up as his apprentice.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Ahasuerus and the Flying Dutchman's crew passed it long ago. Jamie resolves to be better than them. This is a mistake. Even the oldest Bounders haven't given up all hope; when Jamie does, he becomes the Chosen One and the most "Real" person in The Multiverse, the one Bounder for whom "no worlds are real" because he no longer believes his Home even exists. This makes him able to free Prometheus.
  • Determinator: Regardless of everything that he goes through, Jamie just keeps on going, refusing to give up hope of getting Home again. It turns out that his losing this hope is the key to defeating Them for good.
  • Determined Defeatist: Jamie in the ending. He's given up all hope of defeating Them and goes on living just to spite them and do what small kindnesses he can for those he cares about. This turns out to be the thing that does defeat Them.
  • Drama Queen: Joris will burst into tears at any given opportunity, and complain about the misery of his situation loud enough for crowds of people to turn and stare. Jamie is frequently embarrassed by his antics.
  • Earth All Along: Jamie's homeworld is the same as Adam and Vanessa's homeworld, give or take a hundred-year Time Skip, which is in fact the same as our world. Jamie's world developing into a world that has all the fantasy and gaming tropes necessary for someone like Adam to understand the nature of The Multiverse as They set it up was one of the necessary "random factors" built into Their system allowing it to be taken down.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Literally, in Konstam's case. To his credit, he lives up to Joris' extravagant tales about him pretty well, but there is a little sniggering among the cast when they realize that this grown man is roughly the same height as Jamie, a 12-year-old.
  • The Faceless: Thanks to her Blinding Bangs, it's some time before Jamie is sure that Helen even has a face, as she mostly seems to be a nose sticking out of a wall of hair.
    • They have faces, and even subvert the In the Hood trope by going around with their hoods down and their faces exposed much of the time, but have a Perception Filter so that it seems impossible to look at them directly and they're always shadowed or obscured. Except in the light of the Living Blade.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Adam, from our world, identifies Joris as American by his accent, which confuses Joris as he comes from a place called Kathayack. He also guesses that Helen is Pakistani, which goes over as well as anything does with Helen.
    "The House of Uquar," Helen said scathingly, "is in Spithicar."
  • Fattening the Victim: Jamie and Helen are given vast quantities of food by the Cannibal Tribe they find themselves in the middle of. Helen figures out what's going on after she makes a flippant comment about Jamie eating like "a pig to the slaughter" and realizing that all the food they are given is fruits and vegetables because the only meat around is them.
  • First-Name Basis: It's a major Wham Line when one of Them addresses the Demon King Adrac by first name and they begin conversing as acquaintances and colleagues.
  • Fish out of Water: The random nature of the Homeward Bounders' journeys, and the way that cycling back to a world they've been to before always entails a Time Skip, means that they're constantly this. This is by design; it's not just a way to torture the Bounders and keep them powerless, observing a strange world as a Fish out of Water who doesn't quite believe in it as a real place makes it less real and powers Their entire system.
  • Flying Dutchman: All the main characters; additionally, the actual Flying Dutchman and Wandering Jew are minor characters.
  • Framing Device: The book is presented as a manuscript Jamie is literally narrating to one of Their gadgets in the Real Place, a dictaphone that automatically transcribes his speech into print. (There's some examples of Painting the Medium like trying to represent the Flying Dutchman's speech as a Funetik Aksent before Jamie gives up trying to imitate him.) The ending reveals that Jamie intends to deliver this manuscript to Adam and Vanessa's father, his great-nephew, to be published in our world as a work of fiction, because people knowing this story but refusing to believe it's true will help keep Their system from becoming Real again.
  • Friend to Bugs: Insects flock to Helen when she is bored or even just sitting still, and after an argument Jamie regularly brings her things like earwigs to win back her favour. She is also able to command them, though oddly she insists that this has nothing to do with her magic.
  • Game Tropes: This book contains many examples, most notably War Gaming and chance games.
  • Genre Savvy: Adam, thanks to his years of playing war games as well as many others, gets quite a good grip on the plot and the way that They operate before he even meets Them.
  • Global Currency: Averted; Jamie lampshades this when patiently explaining to Helen that money is usually the most worthless thing you could possibly take from one universe to another. He points out the only currency this would work for is a precious metal like gold, but gold is, realistically, very hard to come by in most worlds. (A Call-Back to "Rule Two" horribly killing a kid who stole an actual gold coin from him in one particularly prosperous world, and a Chekhov's Gun for Konstam being able to finance his operations in Adam and Vanessa's world because he happened to be carrying a supply of solid gold "demon wire" as part of his equipment.)
    • This trope is alluded to when Adam is eagerly asking Joris how slavery works in his world and realizes that a "crown" has a purchasing power roughly equivalent to a pound sterling in the UK in 1980, as part of the various synchronicities They have presumably engineered when planning out Their games.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Joris is Type I of this - although he hated the concept of being a slave, Konstam treated him very well, and Joris liked working for him. Turns out Joris' owners hated slavery and were planning to free him as soon as they could.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: "Hope is an anchor." As Prometheus eventually tells Jamie, "hope" as They understand the concept is the weapon They use to maintain their power. Vainly hoping for things to go back to the way they used to be cuts you off from reality, keeps you inside your own head, takes you "out of play" from the gameboard. By contrast, someone giving up all hope is someone who cannot be controlled, and becomes capable of anything.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Joris tells Adam, to his delight, that red-haired women are particularly prized as pleasure slaves in his world because the trait is considered unusual and therefore attractive. Sure enough, Konstam, the most classically heroic character in the story, starts falling for Adam's sister Vanessa almost immediately. (Jamie ends up observing his outraged reaction to Adam trying to sell Vanessa to him wasn't just moral indignation over being mistaken for someone who would buy a woman as a slave, but was because some part of him was genuinely tempted.)
  • Highly Conspicuous Uniform: Joris' bright white demon hunter's uniform with an occult symbol on the front causes many problems for the gang. He draws a dangerous amount of attention on a battlefield, and sticks out terribly in modern-day Earth. Jamie notes that he, in his blood-red ensemble and Helen, dressed head-to-toe in black with no visible face, don't exactly blend in either.
  • Identical Grandson: Vanessa isn't identical to her famous grandmother (whose footsteps she's following in by trying to become a doctor) — Jamie bluntly tells us she's a lot prettier — but there is a striking resemblance, especially with them both being Fiery Redheads. The reason Jamie is so drawn to her appearance is because her grandmother is his little sister Elsie, something he immediately goes into a denial spiral over.
  • Identical Stranger: Since the many worlds are often Alternate Timelines of each other, this happens every so often — Jamie's first trip across a Boundary has him see a friendly man from his neighborhood incongruously recast as a Bronze Age nomadic herdsman. Jamie warns Helen about this trope when she thinks she sees her mother in a crowd in the Mardi Gras world. It's because of this trope that Jamie initially thinks Adam and Vanessa's world is merely an Alternate Timeline of his world, with their grandmother an Identical Stranger to his sister, rather than actually being his world after a century-long Time Skip.
  • In the Hood: They are described as vague, grey, hooded figures with their faces in shadow.
  • Insistent Terminology: Jamie is initially proud of himself for coining the term "Homeward Bounders", only to find that this is the common term used by all Homeward Bounders (along with the terms for "the Bounds", "Boundaries", etc.) and may have been programmed in by Them. This ends up causing some friction with Helen, whose teachers at the House of Uquar did not get the memo about this terminology and taught her a completely different set of terms ("the traverse", "the wider times", etc.)
  • It Amused Me: The only real motivation They seem to have, as a pantheon of cosmic gamers who seem to enjoy the fact that real people suffer and die for their entertainment.
  • It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Jamie and Helen spend some time in a world they dub "Creema di Leema" which is essentially one non-stop Mardi Gras where everyone is perpetually tipsy and partying.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Helen doesn't have a nice word for anybody and is really quite unfair to Jamie at certain points, but she still jumps at the chance to help him get Home when he thinks they might be getting close to it and vows to exterminate Them for what they've done to him.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Helen has this opinion of Jamie because, despite all his knowledge of the Bounds, he does accidentally get them into a few scrapes. She brings Joris on board with her for a while, which frustrates Jamie to no end.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: As part of Their rules, anybody making an attempt to interfere with a Bounder's ability to leave that world or survive in it will be swiftly "removed from play". At one point, Jamie is robbed by a young boy, who is almost instantly hit and crushed by a passing cart, with the only visible part of him being his outstretched hand, holding Jamie's money. Jamie is too horrified to take it back.
  • Last of His Kind: Prometheus is the last survivor of the race of Titans.
  • Ley Line: The Bounds and Boundaries are clearly a reference to this concept, the Bounds being the lines and the Boundaries being the nodes. Ordinary people can't travel through the Boundaries (unless they're touching a Homeward Bounder or using technology from Konstam's world) but they can sense the presence of Bounds and Boundaries and have a tendency to either avoid them or view them as sacred, hence them generally being conveniently unimpeded when a Bounder needs to use them and, in at least one world, having sacred temples built to keep them that way. In keeping with Ley Line lore, a Boundary (nexus) serves as a portal to another world, but only works if you approach it by traveling precisely along one of the Bounds (lines) leading into it, and where exactly you go depends on which direction you're coming from (unless it's a "RANDOM" Boundary).
    • This sets up a minor reveal later on — the Boundaries are always "open" and can be used to travel between worlds at will. Most Bounders don't do this and assume they can only travel between worlds when "called to the Bounds", because only then does their instinctive ability to follow the path of the Bounds exactly kick in. Doing so otherwise without the benefit of Konstam's special equipment is very difficult but, as Jamie discovers in the ending, not impossible.
  • Made a Slave: Joris was sold to Konstam at a young age.
  • Magitek: Joris and Konstam's world, where demon-hunting has become a science, and humans are not only aware of the Boundaries but have developed instruments for detecting the Bounds and crossing them on their own. It seems like They enjoyed playing the Forever War between demons and humans in this world so much They failed to realize the humans' toys could be turned against Them if They were ever discovered.
  • May–December Romance: Konstam's exact age is not made clear, but he is old enough to have essentially raised Joris since he was a young boy, and he falls in love with Vanessa, who is only 19.
  • Mind Manipulation: A lot of compulsions get programmed into your mind when you become a Homeward Bounder, the most important of which is an overpowering urge to show up to a Boundary to be transported to the next world every time one of Their game turns ends.
  • Mind Wipe: Discussed early on — They do this as a matter of course when They dispose of a "random factor" by killing them and covering up the evidence, but by contrast this is against the rules for Homeward Bounders. This is because They are putting on a deliberately misleading show of indifference for Jamie. Creating Homeward Bounders is not a punishment or a way to get interloping humans out of the way — it's a system they're dependent on that requires Homeward Bounders to have vivid memories of their original life and desperately seek to return to it.
    • Later on one of Them mind-whammies Jamie to try to erase his memories of meeting the man on the rock, and leaves him with almost total amnesia that only slowly fades over the course of the next few days. The fact that They were willing to risk this, even though this undermines the whole point of making Jamie a Homeward Bounder, shows how dangerous They find knowledge of him to be.
  • Mood Whiplash: Jamie notes it as absolutely typical of Them and the Bounds that he and Helen can be desperately trying to escape from a Cannibal Tribe one second and then find themselves smack dab in the middle of a worldwide carnival the next.
  • The Multiverse: Homeward Bounders are cast out of their home universe by Them and sent to wander the multiverse until they can get Home again. Some worlds share a lot of similarities to each other, and occasionally the same faces will pop up in multiple worlds. It's because of this that it takes Jamie so long to realize he's made it back Home after all.
  • Newspaper Dating: Jamie asks Adam's father to tell him the date of the current paper, which is July 13th, 1980. He realizes he is back in his Home, which he'd left in 1879.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: "Rule One" of being a Homeward Bounder is that you can't die. Homeward Bounders do not age, they can experience hunger and thirst (and lose weight to the point of emaciation) but will never die of it, and survive all mortal wounds (which also heal much faster than they should). Helen is understandably skeptical of Rule One's protections when Jamie explains them to her, although her most obvious objection, the Chunky Salsa Rule, is addressed by Rule Two (events conspire to keep Homeward Bounders out of such situations in the first place). She's still understandably unwilling to just trust that the Rules won't accept, say, a Homeward Bounder losing a limb or being otherwise permanently disfigured, and Jamie himself thinks about the Fridge Horror of a Homeward Bounder being unable to die while experiencing drowning or radiation sickness.
  • Nightmare Face: Jamie only gets one decent look at one of Their faces, and he refuses to go into detail on the grounds that it's too horrible to describe.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Helen enjoys transforming her arm into gross things like an elephant trunk to scare people, is a Friend to Bugs to the extent that she lets them weave webs in her hair, takes great delight in a human skeleton in Adam's home and when she is upset Jamie is only able to appease her by presenting her with a giant black rat.
  • No Name Given: They don't have names, either personal ones or names for their species (although Konstam identifies them as a kind of demon). One of the behavioral tics that comes with being a Homeward Bounder seems to be talking about Them (with the capital letter and italics) as a constant unnameable presence, although some of the more superstitious Bounders, like the Flying Dutchman, are afraid to say even this for fear of attracting their attention, instead speaking obliquely in terms like "It is not permitted".
    • "Him on the rock" is also never named, although he is known by Helen's people as Uquar and he gives a hint as to his real identity when he tells Jamie he comes from his/our world and his true name means "foresight". He's Prometheus.
    • Jamie at one point starts to give his last name but only manages to say it starts with "H—" before being cut off. This is to conceal his surname, Hamilton, and the fact that he comes from our world and Adam and Vanessa are his descendants.
    • The "Flying Dutchman", along with the rest of his crew, declines to give his name to Jamie and opines that giving out true names may be one of the many things he feels is "not permitted".
  • No Social Skills: Helen is a natural loner and was brought up in a severe religious culture to boot, so interacting with other people is not her strong suit and she tends to make mistakes when she tries, such as celebrating her and Jamie's new outfits by summoning a snake in the same colours and presenting it to him while they are stuck in two halves of a Pantomime Animal costume. He reacts about as well as you'd expect.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: A "demon knife" appears to be at least partly an Energy Weapon that kills with a single touch. Jamie gets a nasty gash in the arm from one that Joris insists should be fatal, only for Jamie to scoff that as a Homeward Bounder he's "had bigger holes in me than that".
  • Our Demons Are Different: Lampshaded, when Adam says that the "demons" ubiquitous in Joris and Konstam's world have little in common with what the word means in England beyond the name. The main thing the name connotes is that demons are an Always Chaotic Evil race implacably hostile to humankind, and although they all have a corporeal body of some kind are much more weakly bound to it than humans are. Joris' brief exposition on Demon-Hunting 101 says that most of a major demon's visible body is an Astral Projection of its true physical body, and if the physical body is destroyed but the spirit is not then the former will simply regenerate (every demon must be "killed twice"). It's this defining feature of "demons" that makes Helen reluctant to reveal her secret to Joris (her magical arm is technically her spirit projecting outside her body, something only demons are supposed to be capable of), and it leads to some weirdness like demons being capable of biological reproduction (a demon physically drains blood from humans or animals to gain sustenance to birth its young).
    • Joris' conclusion that They are just a newly-discovered apex-level demon is complicated by Prometheus revealing that even though Their leader originates from "the demon world", They as a whole can be found on every world in The Multiverse.
  • Our Titans Are Different: Of the "human but larger" variety. Oddly, Uquar tells Jamie that he originates from his own universe, rather than one of the worlds where magic is commonplace.
  • Perception Filter: It may partly just be a mundane result of how unbelievable the story is, but Homeward Bounders find that when they try to talk to other people about their situation, the other person inevitably becomes hostile to them and interprets their story as though they did something wrong and are being punished for it. Ahasuerus describes this as though he were literally compelled to confess to committing the most vile sins and bring persecution on himself whenever he speaks the truth about Them, although Jamie doesn't experience it nearly so intensely (he says he just ends up agreeing with the other person he was somewhere he shouldn't have been and saw something he shouldn't have seen to get out of the conversation).
  • Purpose-Driven Immortality: The purpose of the Homeward Bounders is to keep on wandering until they find their way back to their own worlds, and they cannot die until they do so. This does not stop them being hurt by things that would otherwise kill them, and Jamie occasionally finds himself in situations where death would be preferable, such as being trapped underneath a slag heap for several days.
  • Random Teleportation: Traveling through the Boundaries is an act of chance; the Boundary dumps you at a semi-random location in the next world (forcing you to come back and find the Boundary's other end yourself when it's time to move on), and while only the "RANDOM" Boundaries send you to a completely random world, which world you travel to is only semi-predictable. Jamie doesn't learn until he meets Helen that the seeming predictability of the initial "circuit" of worlds he was trapped in was just because he was (un)lucky and was never traveling with other Homeward Bounders (the Boundaries try their best to separate any Bounders that enter them on the same cycle).
    • Averted in the ending — the demons, Them and him on the rock all have the natural ability to control where they travel through the Boundaries, and Jamie discovers that a Homeward Bounder who has broken free of Their control by finally losing all hope can do the same.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Ahasuerus, the Flying Dutchman and Uquar have been wandering or trapped for thousands of years. Jamie had no idea that his travels made him this. By the time he gets back to his home, 100 years have passed and he is still a child.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Much about the setting is explained by the end of the story, but a great deal is not — or, rather, Jamie doesn't have time to share what he's learned before the dictaphone runs out of energy. In particular, we learn very little about the origin of either Prometheus or Them, or what the world looked like in the seemingly unimaginable prehistory when They seemed benevolent and Prometheus thought of Them as friends.
  • Shapeshifter Weapon: Helen's right arm can transform into anything that she wants, from a normal arm (which is not its default state) to an elephant's trunk, and a variety of weapons. Towards the end, Konstam shows her how to transform it into something called a "living blade", which resembles a bar of light that is deadly to Them and other demon-kind.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Vanessa and Adam are at each other's throats to a degree that Jamie finds genuinely shocking. Adam goes so far as to try and sell Vanessa to Konstam as a slave.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: The cruelest trick that They play is allowing Jamie to get home and stay there... 100 years after he left.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When Jamie, Joris and Helen first end up in our world Jamie announces his dread of high-tech "organized" worlds like ours with lots of laws and regulations where it's hard to get away with being an anonymous drifter with no paperwork. Sure enough, Konstam runs into a lot of bureaucratic obstacles when he shows up hoping to launch a demon hunt — even selling the gold wire he brought to finance their project ends up incurring a dangerous level of legal scrutiny. They only manage it by taking advantage of Adam and Vanessa's parents being out of town and faking their approval for a lot of things, leaving a big headache for them to untangle when they get back. (And this is only possible because it's still The '80s and not the 21st century.)
  • Thieves' Cant: Homeward Bounders have their own variant on real-life "hobo sign" that they inscribe at Boundaries to help other Bounders know what they're getting into. They're mostly mundane advice along the same lines as Real Life hobo sign — "good pickings", "unfriendly", "have a bribe ready for police", etc., while a few of them are more specific to the Bounders' situation, like the mark indicating a "RANDOM" Boundary (what Helen calls a "total traverse"), or the one Jamie gets in trouble for not recognizing that means "cannibals". There's also a Chekhov's Gun in the form of a symbol that all experienced Bounders recognize as legitimate but no one has ever seen used, the one Jamie calls "You Can Tell Them You're a Homeward Bounder", i.e. a world where Their Perception Filter making Homeward Bounders incapable of describing their situation to others without incurring hostility has been lifted. It seems like both Helen's world and Joris' world, where the existence of The Multiverse is common knowledge, might be such exceptions, but this is never directly brought up; the actual reveal is that this symbol is a variant on the demon hunters' emblem, indicating the Bounders aren't just Their victims but are inevitably fated to someday rise up and destroy them.
  • Time Skip: Time between the worlds is not synced up; Jamie finds that whenever he returns to a world he's been to before, time has advanced by several years and there's no hope of resuming whatever life he had when he left. Which makes the ending somewhat of an unreveal, since the idea that your own Home world would somehow be an exception to this is just a baseless hope that They would play fair or show kindness.
  • The Trope Without a Title: The antagonists are just called Them.
  • Tsundere: Helen, all the way. When introducing her in his narration Jamie calls her his "friendly neighbourhood enemy", which is about as accurate as it gets.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Uquar, the culture-hero/deity Helen's people worship, does in fact exist, and is one and the same as "Him on the Rock"/Prometheus.
  • Victorian London: Jamie seems to come from a Victorian-London-themed world and frequently bemoans there aren't many worlds quite like it, and he's uncomfortable with worlds with either a lower or higher tech level. It turns out he literally is from Victorian London, in our universe.
  • Void Between the Worlds: The Real Place.
  • Walking the Earth: Walking the multiverse.
  • World War III: After passing through a set of related worlds either in the midst of or recovering from devastating nuclear war, the gang arrives in our world, and Jamie fears that it might be next on Their list to go to war. This is averted before the end of the book.
  • Written by the Winners: They prefer not to let anyone know that They exist at all, but what stories do leak out about them and the Homeward Bounders They twist to Their advantage; all the Homeward Bounders who make it into legend do so as great sinners who've been punished by God or the gods. They take the place of Jesus in the story of the Wandering Jew, of the Christian God the captain of the Flying Dutchman swore his unfortunate oath to in that legend, and of Zeus and the Olympian gods in the myth of Prometheus. Note that in terms of their nigh-omnipotent control of the universe they are the closest thing this setting has to gods. But they aren't the creators of The Multiverse; their position was usurped.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Though they're promised that finding their way Home breaks the curse to wander. Jamie can, but gets there 100 years too late and no longer fits in, making this also Stranger in a Familiar Land.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: A variant — in this multiverse, a sapient being actually living in a place and thinking of it as Home is what makes it real, but there's an inverse effect where observing a place that is not your Home from outside makes it less real. Perversely, this effect includes "observation" by imagining a place while you're not there; remembering a place or, worse, anticipating seeing it in the future, drains the "realness" from it to feed the fantasy version of it in your mind, an effect They have learned to exploit. This is how They reduced The Multiverse into a collection of semi-imaginary settings for their games; They bound the discoverer of The Multiverse, Prometheus, to his rock and tortured him for eons, feeding on his desperation for freedom and the memory of all the worlds he'd seen to drain their reality and use it to create their own Real Place outside the worlds. The Reveal is the Homeward Bounders aren't just a capricious punishment for mortals who piss Them off — the Homeworld Bounder system is tailor-made to drain reality from The Multiverse by constantly generating new people damned to observe all the worlds they pass through as outsiders while longing for a Home they can never actually return to, to shore up the Real Place as The Multiverse changes and expands beyond what it was the last time Prometheus saw it. The ending reveals that Jamie must maintain a tiny piece of this "Real Place" with himself as the anchor, being the one Homeward Bounder who continues to pass through all worlds as equally un-Home to him, so that the surviving members of Them can't start up the whole system again with someone else.


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