Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
Series: Swords and Fire #1
Published by Orbit on October 24th 2017
FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Melissa Caruso’s novel The Tethered Mage is an engaging YA fantasy that has a little bit for everyone. There’s incredible world building, an intricate magic system, and lots of political intrigue. There’s also forbidden love, plenty of action scenes, and a wonderful cast of characters, with badass females leading the way.
Note: There may be some minor spoilers. The magic system is so unique that I felt like I had to explain some of it in detail to illustrate just how profoundly it impacts the lives of the main characters as soon as the novel begins.
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The novel is set in the world of Eruvia, primarily in the city of Raverra. Raverra is significant in that the governing body of Eruvia, the Empire, is seated there. The cities of Eruvia live in relative peace, although that peace is dictated primarily by the fact that Raverra controls the majority of the rare magic that exists in their world and can therefore weaponize it at any moment if any kind of civil war were to break out.
The system of magic in Eruvia is quite intriguing, especially in the sense that those who have the magical powers don’t have free will to use their magic as they choose. Because those who possess this rare magic are “mage-marked” by a colored ring around their irises, they are identified at an early age, taken away from their families, and conscripted into service for the Raverran Empire as what are called “Falcons.” The magic of these Falcons is unpredictable and often destructive, so the Raverrans take their control of the Falcons even further by using a bracelet called a “jess” to suppress the magic. Whoever places the jess on a Falcon’s wrist becomes bound to that Falcon, and thus becomes a “Falconer.” Each Falconer is then able to control his or her falcon’s magic using special words that unleash or suppress it. The Falcons themselves are little more than tools of the Empire.
When The Tethered Mage opens, Lady Amalia Cornaro, scholar and heir to one of the seats in Raverra’s governing council, is on her way to purchase a rare book when she encounters a young woman named Zaira, who is being accosted by a group of rough looking men. Amalia looks to intervene but before she can do anything, Zaira suddenly turns into the equivalent of a human blow torch and starts going after her attackers with a wall of fire. Recognizing the signs of warlock magic, a Falconer appears on the scene and seeing Amalia, hands her a jess and implores her to put it on Zaira to suppress her magic before she burns down the entire city. Desperate to save Raverra, Amalia readily agrees and slaps the jess on Zaira, only to fully appreciate the consequences of her actions afterwards. She is now bound to Zaira for life and is in control of her fire power.
Chaos ensues because no one on the ruling council is supposed to function as a Falconer, as having control over a Falcon’s magic could be perceived as an unfair advantage. The problem is that once the jess bond has been established, there’s no way to undo it. Amalia is also the sole heir to her family’s council seat, so she has no choice but to be both Falconer and council person when her time comes. What was already a political tightrope walk just got even more complicated. One wrong move and that tenuous peace between cities could go right out the window, especially if others feel threatened by this new fire power Amalia has inadvertently given to the Empire.
What does this mean for Amalia? For her future? For Zaira’s future? The two women are destined to stay tethered together until death, whether they get along or not, and Zaira is no trusting young child like the typical Falcons who come in for training. Will Amalia be able to break through Zaira’s initial defenses and mistrust or are they destined to barely tolerate each other?
Zaira was actually my favorite character in The Tethered Mage. She has spent her life living on the streets as a thief and up until the moment Amalia straps the jess on her, has managed to hide the fact that she is mage-marked and actually a rare Fire Warlock. She is furious at Amalia for trapping her into serving the Empire against her will and goes out of her way to be difficult. She’s street smart, feisty, and truly has no filter, which makes for some comical scenarios since Amalia has to take her everywhere she goes, even to court. I also liked Zaira’s perspective on the laws in Raverra when it comes to the mage-marked. All of those who were taken as children seem to just accept it for what it is and are used to it, but as an adult being forced into service, Zaira is quick to point out just how unfair it all is, that her life is basically over now aside from serving the Empire.
In addition to Zaira, there are many other fantastic female characters that I also liked. Lady Amalia of course is fascinating to watch as she attempts to juggle all of the roles she is forced to play throughout the story. I also enjoyed watching her try to figure out how to break through Zaira’s thorny exterior so they can at least tolerate each other now that they are stuck with each other.
Lady Amalia’s mother, the Contessa, is another fabulous character. She is one of the most powerful people in Raverra and she is someone you do not want to cross.
In addition to these wonderfully drawn characters, I also thought the system of magic, which I’ve already described above, was very well thought out by the author. I loved the intricacies of the magic itself – the way some of the powers are more destructive as with fire and storm warlocks, while other magical abilities have more to do with science and alchemy. I also enjoyed the exploration of the ethics of Raverra with respect to the control of the magic. Who are they to decide that a person shouldn’t be in control of their own magic and that they have to serve the Empire?
There’s also a budding romance in The Tethered Mage and I liked how the author handled it. It was subtle and didn’t overshadow the rest of the story, and it was also more interesting than the typical romance: 1) because it’s a forbidden romance because the couple is unevenly matched in terms of social standing, and 2) because the one who forbids it is the Contessa and as I’ve already mentioned, she is not someone you want to cross, if at all possible.
One issue I had with The Tethered Mage was the heavy emphasis on politics and political discussions, particularly in the middle of the book. I could see this aspect of the book being what will either make or break this story for some readers. I personally love politics and reading about who may be plotting against who, and what they’re going to do about it, etc. But even as much as I enjoy that kind of plot development, I started to get tired of all of the sitting around discussing and wanted them to just do something. I had a moment where I thought about giving up on the book, but I pushed through since I had been enjoying it so much prior to the lull in the action, and thankfully, the action picked back up soon after.
With its fascinating cast of characters, incredible world building, intricate magic system, and its emphasis on political intrigue, The Tethered Mage is the perfect introduction to Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series. I look forward to reading the next installment when it becomes available.
In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.
Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.
Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations.
But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.
The Tethered Mage is the first novel in a spellbinding new fantasy series.