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This week I’m sharing about some series I love that I think deserve more readers and more discussion in bookish/SFF communities. Today I’m raving about Swords and Fire by Melissa Caruso, a Venetian-inspired epic fantasy trilogy containing The Tethered Mage, The Defiant Heir, and The Unbound Empire. This is one of my favorite somewhat recent series for a lot of reasons, but basically, the first book kept me up reading until 2:00 AM and the next two books were even better.

Cover of The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso Cover of The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso Cover of The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

The Swords and Fire trilogy is a well-paced, entertaining series with heart, humor, and sharp dialogue. I think it’s a wonderful example of how to write a trilogy that works from start to finish, and I love how it takes common story beats and tropes and does something a little different with them (such as the heroine’s overall arc and the love triangle that develops later in the series).

This wonderful series is one I frequently recommend to readers looking for fantasy books containing settings with gender equality or governments other than monarchies. Though characters can be discouraged from doing things due to their class, there are no restrictions or expectations based on gender, and same-sex relationships/marriages are accepted and common. The protagonist’s country is headed by a doge, elected for life by an assembly, and has a council comprised of both elected officials and representatives from ruling families.

Their nation seeks to prevent mages from taking over everything by pairing each of them with someone who can control their power: these “Falconers” can bind the magic of their “Falcons” if necessary or unbind it if needed. This is contrasted with a neighboring country that is divided into different territories that are each ruled by a Witch Lord, and this is explored more in the last couple of books after the first shows the intricacies of the Falcon/Falconer system (including why some mages hate it while others actually prefer it to the alternative).

The first book in the series, The Tethered Mage, starts with the protagonist Amalia inadvertently binding herself to a fire mage who lost control of her power and is on the verge of burning down the city. Given the urgency of the situation, there wasn’t time to ask a lot of questions—like if Amalia is perchance from a ruling family and therefore not supposed to be bound to a mage—but it’s apparent there’s a problem once the city is safe and Amalia is identified as a council heir. Amalia has tried to avoid politics, focusing her attention on scholarly pursuits instead (to her mother’s great chagrin), but this incident changes that.

One of the many things I love about this trilogy is how this part of her character arc progresses. Instead of escaping the shackles of expectation to pursue her own interests, Amalia embraces the role she would never have chosen for herself and makes it her own. She doesn’t try to think or make decisions just like her mother would but makes her own judgments and supports the causes she finds important. Throughout the course of the series, she becomes more politically savvy and discovers that her scholarly background can be a strength.

There are a lot of other great characters in this series, too. Zaira, the fire mage, is blunt and outspoken, and she never lets the other characters forget that she is one of the mages who is not happy about being a Falcon. (The development of her eventual friendship with Amalia is also a highlight in this trilogy.) All the Witch Lords who are introduced are quirky and memorable, and one of them is my absolute favorite character in this series: Kathe, the Crow Lord, who becomes Amalia’s ally in the second book. Despite their alliance, he keeps telling Amalia he can’t be trusted, but he’s just so charismatic that Amalia really wanted to trust him (and so did I!). The main villain, another one of the Witch Lords, is the irredeemably evil sort, but he’s more compelling to me than most of those types. He’s capable, he uses his magic in unexpected ways at times, and he doesn’t always rely on his power in his pursuit of continental domination: he also studies, experiments, and creates macabre horrors in the process.

Swords and Fire is an excellent series. I can’t recommend it highly enough to those looking for page-turners with banter and well-written dialogue, great relationships, interesting worldbuilding, and just overall well-executed, fun fantasy books.

Additional Reading on Swords and Fire and Melissa Caruso: