It is the mark of a fantasy writer worth her salt when the dialogue scenes are as intense as the action sequences. Debut novel The Tethered Mage proves Melissa Caruso has what it takes to grab readers’ attention.
The story is driven by political schemes and advanced largely through dialogue and character development, with magic is treated as a weapon of mass destruction wielded only by the reckless and actively malevolent; while there are a few climactic action scenes, as the protagonists dodge assassins and confront villains, these are used with economy. Yet the book remains riveting, as Caruso deploys a dizzying mix of politics, complex interpersonal relationships, and twisty plotting with an intensity that sets it apart in a crowded genre.
Amalia Cornaro is heir to House Cornaro, one of the most powerful and influential families in the Most Serene Raverran Empire. Rather than get involved in her mother’s complex political machinations, Amalia prefers to study magical theory. In this world, magic—particularly in its powerful and non-practical (practical being things like alchemy and artificers) forms, is banned. Those possessing magical powers are forcibly conscripted into the Falcons, and assigned a “Falconer” who can unleash them at the proper time. Otherwise, they must live in fear of being executed for treason.
On a private journey into the city, Amalia stops to help a young woman, Zaira, being harassed on the street, only for Zaira to explode in blue flame. A nearby onlooker coerces Amalia into putting a Falcon’s binding on Zaira’s wrist to save the city from being consumed in the resulting conflagration. But though Zaira is bound to the Falcons and her new Falconer Amalia, by law nobles can’t be conscripted, meaning Amalia and her immensely violent charge are suddenly a semi-independent power everyone wants to control. To make matters worse, a conspiracy among the nobles threatens to ignite war throughout the empire, and its members might have their own plans for Amalia and Zaira. The two must work to unravel a conspiracy and save the Empire before Raverra burns.
This is a story about social conniving. The infrequent action sequences are intense, and Zaira’s balefire powers are absolutely spectacular, but the plot development comes from conversations between characters, found moments in the midst of parties attended by the brightest and best-dressed. Even Zaira’s magic is handled in a political context—every time she joins Amalia at a major gathering of nobles, she’s treated like a major threat—kin to bringing your suitcase nuke to a friend’s party (if said suitcase nuke was also lacking in patience for the complex niceties of your social class).
The focus on social interplay also helps define the intricate political structure of the Most Serene Empire, a kingdom of shifting alliances and stratified power dynamics that could be tip into war at any time, if just one or two things go wrong. Or if the wrong person gets ahold of one of those magical superweapons. The plot machinations are complex without ever feeling overwhelming or obtuse; the simple threat of magic throws everything into stark relief.
But what truly sets The Tethered Mage apart is Amalia; relatively distanced from Raverran politics until her fateful meeting with Zaira, she is hardly the conniving mastermind you often meet in books like this. She is thrust into politics practically against her will, a powerful piece no one’s quite sure how to use. Though she is aware of the social complexities of the court, her modus operandi is to more or less treat people honorably. To Caruso’s credit, she actually lets this work out pretty well for the character, without making her path too easy. In this era of grim and gritty fantasy (never mind our grim and gritty world), it’s rare and refreshing to find a character who sticks to the honorable path, relies on her wits, and actually manages to carry the day, without lowering herself into the swamp. That isn’t to say this is a morally simplistic book, or that characters don’t occasionally stray from the straight and narrow. But Amalia is, at least, a lighter shade of gray, and more compelling for it.
Through subtle political manipulations and interpersonal intrigue, The Tethered Mage accessibly outlines an intricate world in intimate detail, without skimping on the action. Add in refreshingly developed protagonists and an unusual magic system, and the result is an immensely engaging start to a welcome new series.