The Defiant Heir
by Melissa Caruso
560pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: --/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.43/5

The Tethered Mage, Melissa Caruso’s Venetian-inspired fantasy debut novel, was one of my favorite books read during 2017. The worldbuilding is thoughtfully done, and it also features wonderful characters and relationships, mystery and political intrigue, and a little romantic development. It’s so compulsively readable that I ended up staying up until 2:00 one morning finishing it, and I could hardly wait to continue the story in The Defiant Heir—and now that I’ve also read the sequel, I can hardly wait for the third book in the Swords and Fire trilogy. The Defiant Heir has everything I loved about the first book and more, and it’s even better than The Tethered Mage!

Now that the situation in Ardence has been resolved, the threat of the Raverran Empire ordering Amalia to unleash Zaira’s power as her Falconer, and in turn ordering her Falcon to use her abilities to burn down the city, has ended. However, war with a neighboring country appears likely, and Zaira’s rare gift as a fire mage will be one of the Empire’s greatest assets if they are forced to fight the mighty Witch Lords of Vaskandar.

As the possibility of devastating conflict looms on the horizon, Falconers are being murdered and their Falcons are missing, presumed dead—and all signs point toward one of the seventeen Witch Lords of Vaskandar after one of her assassins attacks a Falcon during a dinner party.

With the fate of her country and its people at stake, Amalia decides that the potential benefits outweigh the risks when she has the chance to form an alliance with another Witch Lord, Kathe the Crow Lord, who may even be able to procure her entry to a gathering of Witch Lords so she can plead her case for peace. Yet the terms of such a partnership remain vague and everything is a game to Kathe—and Amalia’s increasingly uncertain just how dangerous playing Kathe’s games may be…

The Tethered Mage is an excellent debut novel that set a high bar for its followup, but The Defiant Heir takes the series to the next level in every way. While the first book introduced the Raverran Empire and its system for weaponizing mages—and also showed how this could not only work but even be a desirable way of life for many mage-marked given the alternatives—the next book expands the world beyond the borders of Amalia’s homeland, showing a land that’s ruled by mages. This and the focus on Amalia’s father’s side of the family leads to a deeper understanding of the world and its history, and there are also higher stakes deeply felt because of the amount of emotional investment in the characters and the bond between Amalia and Zaira. Plus there’s a lot that’s just plain fun given their camaraderie and amusing dialogue, the various quirks of the Witch Lords, and my favorite new addition of all: Kathe, whose very presence automatically makes everything far more interesting.

There’s a lot I want to gush about cover in this review, but first, I want to emphasize that one of its main strengths is the details: what may seem like little embellishments on their own add up to make a big difference. Though the bones of its main plot and subplots are pretty common in fantasy, it’s fresh and riveting because of touches like humorous conversations and observations, the various personalities, the workings of magic, and even unconventional fashions. There’s much that’s familiar in this novel, but Melissa Caruso made it stand apart not only through these touches but also through the addition of a couple of components that are not terribly common in the genre—and more importantly, by handling them with obvious consideration.

One of the ways she does this is by allowing the characters to be fairly free to be themselves due to gender equality. They may face issues due to class or possessing the mage mark like anyone else, but women (and men) are politicians, warriors, rulers, soldiers, assassins, and mages. When Amalia remembers her cousin being told she couldn’t pretend to be in a certain role because she was a princess, it had nothing to do with her being a girl and everything to do with her being royalty. Men and women alike fear Amalia’s mother, and men do not underestimate her or feel shame for fearing a woman. Zaira is outspoken and prickly, makes crude comments, and flirts with both men and women—and no one questions a woman behaving in such a manner. Marcello and Roland can be reflective and sensitive at times—and no one questions a man behaving in such a manner. There are various degrees of ruthless women and ruthless men, and there are various degrees of women and men who strive to be virtuous. Individuals have a range of personalities, and though they are of course shaped by their experiences, they are not at all boxed in by society’s gendered expectations and it’s incredibly refreshing.

Another somewhat uncommon aspect that I enjoyed is the exploration of systems of government that are not monarchies. The last book showed more of the workings of the Raverran Empire with its doge and Council of Nine (which includes Amalia’s mother and will eventually include Amalia as her heir), and this one is largely focused on Vaskandar. This country is headed by seventeen Witch Lords, each of whom has their own domain and life-based magic with an affinity for a specific plant or animal, such as bears, crows, foxes, laurels, eagles, or spiders, to name a few. These Witch Lords are not a unified group but individuals who follow the rule of the mage-marked and have the same methods for maintaining their power and ties to their land. They may forge alliances with each other, work against each other, or ignore what the others are doing, and they’re various degrees of vicious—though even the more vicious can be motivated by understandable human desires. (But not the Most Vicious. The Most Vicious of them all is just plain evil.)

Learning more about Vaskandar and the secrets of its Witch Lords’ unique power was one of the highlights of The Defiant Heir, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of Witch Lords after having only met one of their heirs, the unusually cruel Prince Ruven, in the previous novel. Some of them only briefly appear, but each of them seem like fascinating characters no matter how brief their appearance—and Kathe, the one who appears the most, is one of the major reasons this novel is so engaging. Kathe is a mystery. He’s definitely not fond of torture like Ruven and he certainly can be helpful, but the only straightforward statements he makes are that he has his own ends and can’t be trusted. Though he doesn’t seem like the type to outright lie, he does seem like he may be the type to omit key details, but he’s so charismatic that Amalia and I both couldn’t help but like him all while knowing he might betray Amalia at any time.

Amalia has changed a lot since the beginning of the previous book when she was more interested in books than politics (though she does still like books, of course!). After her recent success at the end of the first novel, she’s more actively stepping into her role as her mother’s heir and keenly experiencing the struggles that come with it: the weight of expectations, the knowledge that she can’t escape making choices that affect lives like her mother does, the difficulty of balancing loyalty to country with compassion, and the sorrow of choosing duty over love. Though there are certainly some heavier parts as Amalia faces some difficult decisions toward the end, there’s also a lot of light in the dialogue between characters and I was especially pleased to see how Amalia and Zaira’s friendship has progressed. Even if they have occasional misunderstandings or disagreements, they obviously trust each other more and their banter and teasing is delightful.

As much as I appreciate that Amalia is a scholarly heroine embracing a legacy based on intelligence and scheming, the biggest issue I had with The Defiant Heir is that I don’t believe Amalia measures up to the reputation she’s beginning to build as a savvy political player. I don’t want to sell her short because she is generally smart even if her inexperience shows at times (such as when verbally sparring with Kathe), and she does have some good ideas and advice. However, there are certainly times when she stumbles into the answer she needs instead of discovering it on her own or receives more credit for a result than she deserves.

That said, I absolutely LOVED The Defiant Heir. It’s extraordinarily fun with wonderful characters and intriguing mysteries that kept me eagerly anticipating what would happen next. While I sped through the first book in this series, I read this one more slowly, savoring every delicious conversation and speculating about where it may be heading—and I can hardly contain my excitement for the third installment in the Swords and Fire trilogy.

My Rating: 9/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Defiant Heir

Read Melissa Caruso’s Guest Post “Fighting in Ballgowns”

Reviews of Previous Books in the Swords and Fire trilogy:

  1. The Tethered Mage