Empire politics! Court drama! Intrigue! In a renaissance-era fantasy Venetian setting? All the ticks to so much stuff I love. I feel like I talk about this book too much without having a review up. In truth I’ve been planning on posting a review of THE TETHERED MAGE for a while, I just wanted to re-read it first so I could do it justice. Now I have! And I enjoyed it just as much the second time round 🙂
THE TETHERED MAGE follows Amalia, a young noble of House Cornaro and heir to a seat on the Council of Nine that rules the Serene Empire of Raverra. An intelligent and bookish young woman, Amalia finds herself unwittingly tethered to Zaira, a fire warlock who has so far managed to avoid being conscripted to the military, as all mages in the Empire are bound by law to do. To complicate matters, the city of Ardence is being roused to rebellion by shady forces unknown, though many suspect the hand of the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are pulling the strings. As the only known fire warlock under the Empire’s control, Zaira is used as a threat to subdue the rebellion before open warfare breaks out and Amalia and Zaira must navigate the complex web of nobles, mages and courtiers to try and bring an end to the diplomatic rift before Ardence is consumed by swords and fire.
And boy you’ll have a whole lot of fun watching them do it! Amalia and Zaira are such a great duo. Amalia is an intelligent, not all too confident young woman who begins the book somewhat unsure of her ability or desire to be the Cornaro heir. She’s a character whose friends mean the world to her, someone who’d go through hell and back to keep them safe, though she perhaps doesn’t realise it to begin with. As a young noble, she is obviously very well-to-do, familiar with the luxury afforded by her social status, even if it does mean living in a veritable viper’s nest of distrustful and snake-tongued nobility. Zaira is pretty much her polar opposite. Foul-mouthed and unrefined, Zaira grew up hard on the rough edges of the city and, due to her innate magical ability, suddenly finds herself unwillingly thrust into the world of high politics, nobility and power. What I loved about Zaira was her downright refusal to change who she was to better appeal to the sensibilities of the high-minded aristocrats she is forced to keep company with. Her blunt, no-nonsense, cut-through-the-shit manner of speaking quickly elevated her to becoming my favourite character and she stayed on that pedestal throughout the story.
What I really enjoyed about this book was Caruso’s ability to construct a complex world with no moral absolutes without making the tone too heavy. Our protagonists are fundamentally good people trying to do good in a world whose power structures and competing factions often muddy the waters. This is where the rules of Caruso’s world come in. Melissa herself has said that the basis of the story stemmed from a conversation she had with her partner about what a society that included magic wielders would actually look like. And there are many approaches the different societies of her world take. In pre-Empire Ardence, mages were burned at the stake. In Vaskandar, they are elevated to rulers and in the Serene Empire of Raverra, they are forcibly brought under government control, conscripted to the military and magically ‘tethered’ to their Falcon, who controls the use of their powers. It’s a wonderful basis for a fascinating story that compels us to confront a bunch of difficult questions about the nature of power and freedom and, from a storytelling perspective, actually creates a lot of the page-turning tension that makes this book such a great read.
The one thing that didn’t work for me personally is the romantic sub-plot in the book. Amalia’s relationship with Lieutenant Marcello Verdi was something I could have done without. This is something I’m really interested in exploring about myself because I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t work for me. It’s not that I’m against romance in books as a hard rule by any means. I can name a bunch of great books I’ve read recently where I thought the romance enhanced the story (Xiulan and Lee in Steel Crow Saga, Kaaro and Aminat in Rosewater, pretty much every relationship in Jade City), this particular romance just didn’t work for me. What interests me about it on a personal level is that Marcello isn’t your typical macho, hard-edged love interest and while, on a conscious level, I can gladly say I appreciate the portrayal of emotionally-available men who are open to showing vulnerability, I still found something grating about him as a character and wonder whether this is somehow related to his disavowal of ‘traditional masculinity’ that triggers some lingering sense of socially- entrenched macho bullshit in me. To be fair, Amalia herself actually finds some of Marcello’s more irritating flaws worthy of calling him on (“Lieutenant Verdi, you have many admirable qualities, but your over-protectiveness is not one of them”). All the same, perhaps some self-reflection is in order.
This book is truly fantastic though. It’s fun; it’s complex; Amalia and Zaira are a power duo; the intrigue, court drama and shady, plotting nobility element is exactly the kind of thing I love. Definite recommend, if you like any of this stuff then THE TETHERED MAGE is a must read.
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