The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
In The Tethered Mage (2017), The Raverran Empire is as complacent, even “Serene,” as its military is legion, and indeed, magical. Every military empire has its controversies, and so does this one, however enlightened it may pretend to be with gender and marriage equality achievements.
Amalia is the heir to the Cornaro fortune and seat upon the Raverran Empire’s Council of Nine, and is as yawnishly blue blooded as she can be. She has, however, enough spirit to attempt harnessing rogue fire warlock Zaira, who has loosed her deadly balefire, with a magical “jess,” binding the pair together for life as falcon and falconer. Thus the two become conscripted soldiers in the Raverran (Serene) Empire’s impressive magical military machine.
Amalia’s nobility should have precluded the relationship, but in emergency situations, these things happen. And so we launch into the story of political intrigue and stratagem as an annexed state foments a war by breaking the Serene Accords — set against a stage of late 17th-century Venetian wardrobe design. (I think the resemblance to this point in history may pretty much end there.)
How is the intrigue? Pretty good. A political story can go very wrong in fantasy novels, authors lacking the experience to ground a fantastic tale to the realm of the very technical (and human) device of control politics. Melissa Caruso is no political hand, but she takes some care with the subject, and muscles you into the fictive dream.
The Tethered Mage’s pacing gets sluggish toward the middle as it heaves the dead weight of a sweet, but barely interesting star-crossed romantic subplot between falconer Lieutenant Verdi and Amalia Cornaro. Amalia’s relationship with her falcon Zaira has more interest and tension. Caruso gives both characters a markedly distinct voice and this parity may be her finest achievement of the entire book.
The story is, for the most part, fairly straightforward, with one or two surprises. I was looking for a little more in the way of character twists. Some villains are exactly as villainous as they appear to be, no more or less. Amalia’s character arc is well handled. She comes into her own with a strong assent toward the end.
On balance, The Tethered Mage is a good read and if you like the guise of 17th-century Venice, then you are in for a rare treat. A sequel, The Defiant Heir, is currently scheduled for publication in April 2018.