Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Swords and Fire
Publisher: Orbit (October 24, 2017)
Length: 438 pages
Looks like my list of best fantasy debuts of 2017 grows yet again, and I have another new author to keep my eye on. Although there’s no magic formula to determine what makes a good novel (not to mention I can’t always explain why certain books simply work well for me while others do not), there are still a few key elements I generally look for, including believable and compelling characters, realistic atmospheric and world-building, and writing that is smooth and easy to get into. The Tethered Mage managed to check all these boxes and also succeeded in delivering an absorbing plot with an altogether rewarding blend of intrigue and fantasy. If this is what Melissa Caruso has to offer for her debut effort, then she will go very far indeed.
Set in Raverra, a canaled city reminiscent of Renaissance Venice, The Tethered Mage is the first novel of the Swords and Fire trilogy which introduces us to a pair of young women who come from very different backgrounds. As the only daughter of Lissandra Cornaro, who is also known as La Contessa because of the powerful position she holds on the ruling Council of Nine, Lady Amalia is heir to one of the most powerful aristocratic families in the Empire. But unlike her mother, Amalia doesn’t have much of an interest in politics, preferring to involve herself in more bookish pursuits, secretly tracking down and acquiring rare texts in her spare time.
But on a fateful day while returning from one of her book-hunting excursions, Amalia happens to stumble upon a thin and bedraggled young woman being harassed by a group of thugs, prompting her to step in and lend a hand. Of course, that was before Amalia realized the other woman was fire warlock, who’s more than capable of taking care of herself—and burning the whole city down with her. To save Raverra, Amalia makes the split second decision to help Lieutenant Marcello Verdi of the Falconers, the only magical enforcer on the scene. However, by doing so, she has unwittingly broken a law forbidding any members of a ruling family to bind a mage. Whether she likes it or not though, Amalia is now a Falconer, and the political implications of this are profound.
The fire warlock, a young runaway named Zaira, is not entirely happy with the new arrangement either. She’s spent most of her life trying to avoid the Falconers, only to now find herself tethered to, of all people, the heir of La Contessa. For their own safety (and for the safety of the city), mages are typically identified as children and brought under the care of the Falconers in a comfortable and secure place known as the Mews. It’s not a bad life by any means, but for Zaira who has tasted freedom, having her powers controlled and being monitored at all times does not sit right with her. Above all though, what Zaira hates most is being treated like a pawn—and unfortunately, that is exactly what the powers that be have in mind for her, hoping to use Amalia’s connection to a fire warlock to their advantage.
From beginning to end, The Tethered Mage was a joy to read. Though not the most original story ever, the familiar elements still resonated strongly with me because of how well everything was put together. Characterization was excellent, which for a book like this is essential, since relationships make up the bulk of the narrative. And of course, at the heart of this weave of bonds and attachments, our protagonist Amalia acts as the thread that binds everyone together. Readers also get to discover Raverra through her eyes, and learn of the complexities and dangers behind the politics of the Empire.
But first, like I said, The Tethered Mage is all about the relationships. For one, there’s La Contessa, our protagonist’s mother. Initially, her disapproval of Amalia’s hobbies and clandestine trips out to the city made me picture a strict and uncompromising woman, but don’t be fooled. While the matriarch of the Cornaro family is not someone you would want to cross, that exterior harshness actually belies a fierce love for her daughter. On occasion, she even allows Amalia to spread her wings and explore her interests—unless, of course, that interest is Marcello Verdi, whose status as a Falconer puts him well below the station of a Cornaro heir. Still, despite herself, Amalia is attracted to the Lieutenant, and he is drawn to her as well. This might be a good time to mention that I am very picky about my “forbidden love” stories, but Amalia and Marcello’s romance actually turned out to be very beautiful and sweet, especially since it developed so naturally.
And then, of course, we come to the most important relationship of all—the one between Amalia and Zaira, the mage and her Falconer. In my opinion, between romances and friendships, I actually think the latter is tougher to write convincingly. Book reviewers often slam “insta-love”, and for good reason because it’s just not realistic. Friendships are the same way—they have to be earned, and trust has to build. These things take time and can’t be rushed. And while for many readers, Amalia and Zaira eventually becoming friends may have been a foregone conclusion from the start, this doesn’t mean Caruso ever stops trying to make her characters’ journey to trust and friendship as plausible and compelling as it can be. The vast effort and level of detail the author puts into these kinds of things is obvious, and I respect that tremendously.
I haven’t even really talked about the plot yet, but I think it is enough to say I was kept entertained through the entire novel, even when we got the slower chapters which were dominated by Raverran politics. There’s a good amount of tension as well as deftly crafted intrigue in this story, which also throws us plenty of action and danger to keep us on our toes.
All in all, I am pleased beyond all my expectations. If you’re looking for a traditional fantasy that hits all the right buttons of a great debut, I highly recommend checking out The Tethered Mage. I am already craving the sequel.