The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

(8.3/10) Beautifully written political fantasy drama full of courtly intrigue, powerful enemies, and phenomenal magic potential

Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage is one worth picking up. If you love complex political plots, deep world building, and fun magic then this one's for you. The world that Caruso has crafted is complex and interesting. Magic users are incredibly powerful. As a result, they are either killed as soon as their mage mark manifests or they tend to end up becoming rulers with absolute power in their dominions. The Serene Empire, the location in which this novel takes place, represents a sort of middle ground where mages are magically restricted and controlled by the government. It makes for a unique world with complex issues.

I thoroughly enjoyed the complexities of the political situation that Amalia, our viewpoint character, is forced to navigate. From a controlling mother who also wields enormous political power to her newfound responsibilities as a falconer (someone tethered to a mage) she has an incredible amount to navigate and often finds that there are no easy and straightforward answers. I appreciate how real the political situations seemed. I found myself sympathetic not only to the protagonists but also to the antagonists and the situations they found themselves in. It’s excellent writing when I’m able to be drawn in like that. The magic system itself is also fairly unique. It’s pretty rare to see mages that are incredibly powerful, often because of the issues that creates for the story. Yet Caruso has embraced those very issues in her magic system, giving us incredibly powerful mages that are controlled exactly because they are so powerful - or who end up ruling kingdoms of their own. It’s a fresh take and one I found fascinating. There are also some elements of fantasy-of-manners in this one, particularly as it regards some of the political side of the plot, and it was nice to see those elements outside of historical fiction based on Victorian or Regency England. The pacing was also excellent. I had a difficult time putting the book down, often telling myself that I could finish just one more chapter.

If this novel has a weakness, for me it’s the characters. While I enjoyed seeing things from Amalia’s perspective, and loved the complexities she found herself in the midst of, it took most of the book before I felt like I truly enjoyed her as a character. Many of the side characters fell flat for me, this was particularly true of Zaira. Partially I think this is because Zaira is such a closed individual. That’s fine, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite hit for me. Normally this would be more of a negative for me than it is, and I think that’s down to just how well done I found the plot and pacing and setting of this book. I’m hopeful that this is something we’ll see resolved in the subsequent novels of the series, as I’ll definitely be finishing the trilogy in the near future.

The Tethered Mage tells a gripping tale filled with political maneuvering, deep world building, and fascinating magic. To top it off, it does that telling with a flare for wonderful pacing and intricate plotting. I loved this debut from Caruso and can’t wait to see what happens next.
Calvin Park, 8.5/10

I received a review copy of The Tethered Mage in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Melissa Caruso, Nazia, and Orbit.

Less than a week ago I had no idea what to read next. I picked up this book as the cover looked gorgeous and contained quotations from RJ Barker, Anna Smith Spark, and Vic James. I'm super happy that I did and I would describe this book as YA political fantasy with magic - almost like the perfect mix of Gilded Cage and The Lies of Locke Lamora.

The world of Eruvia has had a lasting peace under the guidance of the Empire based in the city of Raverra. One of the contributing factors to how the peace is kept is that the Empire control the Falcons. They are mage-marked warlocks, some of who control magical destruction capabilities that can engulf and eradicate whole cities with ease. Due to the unpredictability and the possible drastic consequences of such magical power- children who show these marks are abducted and taken to a magic-based environment known as the Mews. All who have these talents are assigned a Falconer who can befriend, control, and release the power of these warlocks when necessary.

The opening of this narrative is gripping. It sets up the scenario almost straight away with a rogue fire warlock almost demolishing the city. Luck has it that the heir to the throne, Lady Amalia, was able to stop the total destruction with a magic halting artefact. She didn't realise this act would bind the two ladies, who could not possibly be more different, for eternity - or until the death of either.

This story truly was a pleasant surprise. I would call it YA. Although we never find out the ages of the two above-mentioned main characters I would estimate they're around eighteen. There's unspeakable love, courtly engagements, and a potential rebellion to the north. Although YA, of which I admit I'm not an expert, I found this truely engrossing, intricate and complex. It's beautifully written. The prose flows in a hauntingly poetic way yet what really stood out to me was the excellent dialogue. The characterisation is well-crafted with many memorable players such as Lieutenant Marcello Verdi and Amalia's lovely but commanding mother. The enclosed map and cartography seem well designed and crafted although we only visit a handful of places in the world. Although fantasy, it's tough to know 100-percent what era this is based on. I'd say this is an alternative history version of Victorian times with an Italian vibe. The technology includes flintlock pistols and magical lamps that act as telephone lines. The magic-scheme is great and seemed to be presented in three sorts. The warlocks who can erupt chaos, other mage-marked who use skills to advance science, and a third sort we know less about that is flaunted by some individuals in Vaskandar. We only witness minuscule glimpses of the later but it seems terrifying.

This wasn't an issue for me but one negative certain readers might have is that the second third of the book is slower and not as action-packed as the others. At this stage, the political web of complexity is being weaved, reworked, and manipulated, and amongst this Amalia and her falcon Zaira are trying to work together, in the hope they can stop the imminent revolution. It doesn't help that Zaira still doesn't trust and potentially hates Raverra's heir.

The ending is stunning. This is a deep story that needs attention. I just hope YA fans don't think it's too complex and that adult fantasy fans don't think it's too YA. Personally, I thought this was a beautifully written political fantasy drama full of courtly intrigue, powerful enemies, and phenomenal magic potential. I raced through this exquisite debut it 3 days and adored it.
James Tivendale, 8/10

Reviews by and James Tivendale


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All reviews for Melissa Caruso's Swords and Fire series

The Tethered Mage

Swords and Fire #1 written by Melissa Caruso

In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled - taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army. Zaira has lived her life [...]

Published: 2017

Our rating: 8.3 | positive reader reviews


The Defiant Heir

Swords and Fire #2 written by Melissa Caruso

Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war. But before an invasion can begin, they must call a rare gathering of all seventeen lords to decide a [...]

Published: 2018

Our rating: 8.8 | positive reader reviews


The Unbound Empire

Swords and Fire #3 written by Melissa Caruso

While winter snows keep the Witch Lord Ruven's invading armies at bay, Lady Amalia Cornaro and the fire warlock Zaira attempt to change the fate of mages in the Raverra [...]

Published: 2019

Our rating: 9.2 | positive reader reviews


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The Obsidian Tower

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'Guard the tower, ward the stone. Find your answers writ in bone. Keep your trust through wits or war--nothing must unseal the door.'Deep within Gloamingard [...]

Series: The Gate of Secrets
Published: 2020

Score: 93

Our rating: 9.5 | 0 positive reader reviews


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