Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: "The Tethered Mage" by Melissa Caruso

Melissa Caruso’s “The Tethered Mage” ($15.99, Orbit) presents us with an intriguing, if slightly flawed debut novel.

Amalia Cornaro, heir to one of the most powerful positions in Raverran government, would far rather read her books on magic and artifice than play politics. She often sneaks out of her mother’s palace dressed in plain clothes to go in search of rare books in seedy areas of the city. On one such adventure, a chance encounter gives her no choice, but to enter the political arena.

When Amalia sees a group of ruffians accosting a girl, she jumps to try to help. As it turns out, the girl needs no help, unleashing powerful magic, balefire, on her assailants. But she can’t control the magic, and it threatens to burn the city. A young lieutenant in the Falconers, a group that controls all magical individuals in Raverra, convinces Amalia, unaware of her identity, to slap a bracelet on the girl that will stop her magic. Thus, Amalia becomes the only noble Falconer. Her new Falcon, Zaira, proves to be willful, independent and uncooperative, but is also the most powerful weapon the Serene Empire has against the rebelling city of Ardence.

This newfound power thrusts Amalia into the politics she’s avoided. Somehow she must form a bond with Zaira to save her Falcon’s life and the lives of everyone in Ardence.

First, let’s cover what I think is a pretty big flaw in this story, and that’s Amalia’s relationship with Zaira. From the Falcon’s viewpoint, she has basically been enslaved. Though she’s treated well and given every luxury, she’s not allowed to leave the Mews without her Falconer, and if Amalia can’t control her power, Zaira will be killed. From the Falconer’s point of view, she’s saving Zaira from herself, which also has some truth, given the tragedies we learn of in her past.

I expected their relationship to evolve through the course of the book as they came to understand each other. There are moments where the Amalia seems to feel at least a little conflicted about the situation, but she never really seems to grasp Zaira’s point of view. Given the events of this book, I suspect that struggle will come into play in future volumes, but it does leave the reader feeling a little bit less empathy for the protagonist.

That said, “The Tethered Mage” was still a fun read. It threatened from time to time to get bogged down in politics, but always managed to pull itself out. The last third or so of the book is a pretty intense thrill ride. Sure, Amalia probably should have seen some of the developments coming, but that obliviousness is part of her character.

Though Amalia is the main focus of the tale, it’s Zaira who really steals the show. It’s a shame that we don’t get a little more of her personality – a frank and blunt approach to life hiding layers that we only get hints at here. Plus, she’s just a badass. I hope that she’ll play a bigger and bigger role as the series goes on, as I think, at this point, she’s really a far more fascinating character.

Despite some issues, “The Tethered Mage” is well written and entertaining. There’s a lot to build on from this first volume, and I’ll definitely sign up for the second tale.

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