The Tethered Mage
by Melissa Caruso
480pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.33/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.96/5

The Tethered Mage, the first book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, is Melissa Caruso’s debut novel—and what a wonderful debut it is! It’s Venetian-inspired fantasy featuring great characters (including a variety of women), magic, political intrigue and mystery, friendship, and a dash of romantic entanglement, but what truly sets it apart is the solid worldbuilding. I found it so exciting and compulsively readable that I could hardly put it down, and I ended up staying up until 2:00 AM finishing it since I had to know how it ended.

To her mother’s chagrin, eighteen-year-old Lady Amalia Cornaro is more interested in studying the creation of devices than politics, but Amalia is forced to become politically involved after she accidentally breaks the rules to save the city of Raverra…

When returning from a clandestine book-buying trip to a part of the city of which her august mother would surely disapprove, Amalia stumbles upon a young woman being threatened by three men. Though Amalia realizes it’s unwise for her to get involved as La Contessa’s only daughter and heir to her position on the Council of Nine, she also feels that morality demands that she attempt to help and therefore steps in. However, it is soon obvious that the woman does not need any help: she is a rare and dangerous fire mage, the same type that has historically been the difference between winning and losing for the Empire.

Even after the men have been consumed by her flames, the mage continues to burn, ignoring Amalia’s desperate pleas to stop before she destroys the entire city. In the midst of the chaos, she’s found by Lieutenant Marcello Verdi of the Falconers, the company that controls magic for the Empire, who informs Amalia that the mage has lost control and is unable to stop herself. Since he’s already bound to a Falcon, he cannot prevent her from using her power, but Amalia can if she can only manage to slip a jess around the other woman’s wrist.

Amalia braves the fire and is successful, and the magic of the jess binds the mage’s power. Both Marcello and Amalia are relieved that the city is no longer burning, but their relief doesn’t last long: when Marcello followed the customary procedure developed for emergency situations just like this, he didn’t realize he was recruiting the Cornaro heir, breaking the law that nobles from ruling families cannot be Falconers. Unfortunately, there is no way to undo this, and Amalia is now the only one who can bind and release the magic of the most powerful of all the Empire’s Falcons.

War looms on the horizon for the first time in fifty years, and if there is a conflict, Amalia will be expected to unleash the mage’s flames upon the city she’s come to think of as a second home—and her only hope is to follow the trail of treachery to its source and end the war before it begins…

The Tethered Mage is a fantastic first novel that particularly excels at characters, worldbuilding, and telling the type of compelling story that leads to late-night-to-early-morning binge reading. The societal system for handling magic and the resulting consequences are thoughtfully done, and the major characters all have human flaws and realistic struggles based on their backgrounds (plus I very much enjoyed reading about both Amalia and the fire mage, Zaira, as well as Amalia’s mother and her exceptionally competent right-hand woman).

Though it wouldn’t be as captivating without its cast of characters, the worldbuilding is what primarily sets The Tethered Mage apart as fresh and unique. Rather than being ruled by a monarch, the Serene Empire is primarily run by a doge, elected to this lifetime position by an Assembly dedicated to law-making, and the Council of Nine, which includes five elected officials and four members of ruling families who inherit their positions. A neighboring country is controlled by power-hungry mages who can and do inflict extraordinary horrors upon their people, but the Serene Empire’s vast power comes from their system of controlling magic. Once a child with the mage mark is discovered, they (and, if they wish, their family) must move to the Mews where they will be trained and eventually matched with a Falconer capable of binding and releasing their power as necessary (in cases in which their power does not endanger others, they remain unbound most of the time). The Falcon and Falconer are a pair, and the mage is free to leave the Mews—as long as they are accompanied by their Falconer, who can unleash their power if necessary for self defense and bind it again if it becomes a threat to innocent bystanders or even the city as a whole.

In an interview at the back of the book, Melissa Caruso discussed how this idea for the book’s premise was the result of wondering how a world with mages would be able to prevent them from taking over. When asked about the overarching theme of freedom vs. protection, her response includes the following line: “I wanted the individual characters and the world as a whole to be struggling with the issue of how to handle mages, and I didn’t want there to be an easy answer that would solve all the potential problems.” She completely succeeded, and these complexities and the way she showed the variety of effects caused by this system were among the novel’s greatest strengths. The Tethered Mage demonstrates the disruption it can cause for families with a child who develops the mage mark, the changes resulting from going from years of peacetime to imminent war, and even why some mages prefer the protection of the Mews to the alternative.

However, even the most content of Falcons were never allowed to choose their lot in life, and one reason I loved Zaira so much is that she never lets the other characters forget this! Though secretive about her past, she is blunt and outspoken when it comes to her feelings about her present situation, and her dynamic with Amalia as they slowly learn to work together was well done. Amalia feels terrible that her attempt to help Zaira led to her being conscripted into the Falcons, apologizes to her, and tries to befriend her, but Zaira is quite clear that none of that changes the fact that she’s furious about becoming a Falcon and wants nothing to do with Amalia. Yet the two cannot escape that they’re bound together now, and they end up in situations in which they both have something to offer. It is a bit stereotypical that one of them is book-smart but not street-smart while the other is illiterate but a survivor who knows her way around the city, but they do complement each other nicely and it makes for entertaining reading.

Amalia is obviously quite different from Zaira, but she too is an intriguing character. After she becomes a Falconer, she faces a lot of situations she feels unprepared to handle, but in addition to being about whether or not she and Zaira can develop mutual trust, it’s also about Amalia becoming more politically savvy and stepping into the role she was born for as the Cornaro heir—and being her own person instead of simply La Contessa’s daughter. Throughout the course of the novel, she faces obstacles related to her dependence on an elixir that keeps her alive, her encounters with a creepy foreign prince who abuses his power to control other people’s bodies against their will, and her feelings for Marcello, of whom her mother does not approve. I also enjoyed reading about her interactions with many of the other characters, especially her intelligent and feared mother and, of course, Zaira. It was also wonderful that in addition to the budding romance, there were plenty of friendships too—both with other women and a man (it’s refreshing to see both female friendship and a platonic male/female friendship in the same book, as well as a setting with gender equality and acceptance of same-sex marriage).

Though it has numerous wonderful qualities, this is not a book to read if one is looking for subtlety or beautiful writing. The prose is not particularly notable since it’s a fairly typical straightforward first person narrative peppered with infodumps, but it is quite readable with some fun dialogue, making it effortless to breeze through.

The Tethered Mage is one of the most engaging novels I’ve encountered this year, debut or otherwise, and it is easily my favorite 2017 debut set in a secondary world. Its characters and universe make it memorable, and I’m looking forward to the next installment, The Defiant Heir, in April 2018!

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Tethered Mage