The Unbound Empire
by Melissa Caruso
560pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.43/5

Between watching the rushed final season of Game of Thrones and reading a couple of recent conclusions to trilogies, I’ve been thinking a lot about series endings—especially how rare it is to find a multi-volume story whose final installment measures up to its previous ones. Many series I’ve otherwise loved have had concluding volumes that didn’t entirely work for me, and in many of these cases, my problem wasn’t where the story ended up but how it got to that point. Though I do sometimes find endings to be too neatly, happily wrapped up given the characters’ difficult journeys (or, on occasion, too dismal and depressing for my taste), many of the series I’ve felt had weaker final installments primarily had issues with pacing: often, earlier and middle parts seem drawn out with characterization left by the wayside, then later parts pick up and proceed at a breakneck pace, and suddenly, it’s over. The end.

The Unbound Empire, the third volume in Melissa Caruso’s Venetian-inspired Swords and Fire trilogy, is one of those rare series finales done right. It’s well paced without leaving behind all the fun dialogue and interactions that were a large part of why I enjoyed the series so much in the first place. Successes feel earned. Character arcs advance in believable ways that fit naturally with the previous two books. And it maintains the balance between being so tightly resolved that it seems that the story doesn’t continue after the last page and so loosely resolved that it’s an unsatisfying conclusion. There’s enough work to be done that it’s not at all hard to imagine characters will continue to learn and grow as they face further problems after that final page, but it also didn’t have dangling plotlines or big unanswered questions that will haunt me forever.

In fact, the entire Swords and Fire trilogy is a series done right, cementing Melissa Caruso’s first three novels as some of my recent favorites. They’re entertaining and effortlessly readable with heart, humor, and thoughtful storytelling that makes them stand out. Though there’s much about them that feels familiar from the magics to a young heroine finding her place in the world, the mix of details and their execution make it fresh—from gender equality and LGBTQ acceptance removing some common obstacles, to the various governments that make the countries and conflicts more interesting than the oft-used monarchies, to the intricacies of how the mage-marked are controlled or not, to how mandatory service to the Empire is desirable for many mages since they are fed, sheltered, and protected from threats, to the individual quirks of the various Witch Lords. (You can read more about these in my reviews of the first two books, The Tethered Mage and The Defiant Heir.) Even the love triangle is a bit different from the norm and unusually well handled, but I won’t discuss that any further to avoid spoiling how it plays out!

In particular, I appreciated Amalia’s progression throughout these three books. When The Tethered Mage began, Amalia preferred books and magical theory studies to politics and had not yet acquired the acumen expected of her as the heir to her mother’s place on the ruling council. But her story is not about escaping the shackles of expectation to pursue her own goals—rather, it’s about embracing a role that she would not have chosen for herself and making it her own. Although I do often enjoy stories in which characters defy such roles to follow their hearts, I found it refreshing to follow one who chose to be dutiful instead, and Amalia still very much forged her own path as she made her own judgments and pursued her own goals. Her scholarly background was a strength—especially since the main villain, Ruven, used obscure knowledge gleaned from texts in addition to his powers—and Amalia had no illusions that she would ever be (or should be) just like her mother, though she did take her advice seriously and learn from her.

Throughout the trilogy, Amalia becomes more politically perceptive, and it’s gratifying to see just how far she’s come in The Unbound Empire. In the previous book, she seemed more naive and hesitant, and it also seemed to me that she got more credit than she deserved in the end, but her achievements seem deserved in the final book. She’s more aware of the games being played, and it’s delightful to read about actual competent nemeses as she tries to discover and thwart Ruven’s plans. Amalia realizes that Ruven is manipulative and unlikely to consider himself bound by his word later when he attempts to persuade her with reason or emotion, nor does Ruven automatically take Amalia’s words at face value considering what he knows about her. Although Ruven is one of those character types I often find dull—the type primarily motivated by greed and power with no apparent redeeming qualities—he is a compelling villain because he’s capable, making his depravity all the more chilling. He doesn’t make glaringly obvious mistakes, and even though he’s extraordinarily powerful as someone who can control others with a touch, heal himself, and draw from the life within his domain, he also has more than one trick up his sleeve. He uses his magic in different and sometimes unexpected ways, and he doesn’t just rely on his innate abilities in his pursuit of continental domination: he also studies, experiments, and invents all kinds of macabre horrors.

In addition to dealing with Ruven’s attempt to add her country to his own dominion in The Unbound Empire, Amalia also works on passing a law that will give the mage-marked more freedom while continuing her struggle with the consequences of the decision she made at the end of the previous book. As Amalia and Zaira face the possibility of unleashing the latter’s deadly fire in defense, a major theme in this novel is retaining one’s compassion when in a position that forces one to make life and death decisions in the service of protecting one’s people. How does one take the more difficult path of acknowledging their accountability instead of distancing oneself from the crushing weight of such responsibility—or giving in and simply becoming the monstrous person they feel they are in making such judgments? How does one remain true to their own principles when it seems that there are no good choices and time is running out?

There are no easy solutions, but Amalia has many supportive relationships and people she can rely on for help. Though she seems to believe her friend (and one corner of the love triangle) Marcello is the only person she can discuss such matters with, that’s just not true. Her accidental bond with Zaira has grown into a beautiful friendship, and Zaira will always bluntly (and, often, crassly) speak her mind, having no reservations whatsoever about telling Amalia when she thinks she’s making a misstep or being too hard on herself. Amalia also gets a glimpse of the softer side behind her mother’s ruthless exterior, and I loved the sage advice that La Contessa gave her about their role in the Empire, especially that she dispensed it without telling Amalia specifically how to think and be. Even Amalia’s suitor (and other corner of the love triangle) Kathe—one of the feared seventeen Witch Lords, who entered into a mutual courtship arrangement with Amalia for political appearances—has some wisdom to impart to her about ruling and has become someone she can turn to as more than just an ally in the fight against Ruven.

Many of Amalia’s connections shine brightly, and though each also shows a more serious side, Zaira and Kathe in particular add some much needed amusement in the midst of all the high stakes. Zaira has a way with words that makes conversations particularly interesting, and Kathe—whose hobbies include playing games and decorating trees with the skulls of his enemies—has a presence that automatically makes everything more interesting.

In fact, meeting Kathe is the main reason I found The Defiant Heir the most fun book in the series, but The Unbound Empire is both immensely fun and a technically stronger book, given that I didn’t have the feeling that Amalia was building her reputation too easily. It’s an excellent conclusion to the Swords and Fire trilogy, and I’m excited to read more by Melissa Caruso—especially considering her next series will be set in the same world as her first!

My Rating: 9/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Unbound Empire

Reviews of Previous Books in the Swords and Fire trilogy:

  1. The Tethered Mage
  2. The Defiant Heir