A friend recommended The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso to me due to its similarities with my own work; magic users who are feared and controlled for their power. I completely fell in love with the trilogy and The Unbound Empire is one of my favourite books of 2019! Though not a Young Adult fantasy like my normal reads, there is a lot of cross-over appear here that YA readers will enjoy, including plenty of fantasy action, court intrigue, meaningful friendships and a dollop of romance.
The story begins in the Venice-inspired kingdom of Raverra which has some unique ideas when it comes to magic and how to control such dangerous power in society. As the series goes on, the two main leads explore the various sides of the debate. The Tethered Mage is written in first-person and from the point of view of Amalia, the heir to a powerful woman. We’re quickly thrown right into the action as Amalia accidentally becomes “tethered” to an incredibly powerful fire warlock, Zaira. They both come from completely different worlds and social standing and need to learn to accept and trust each other. Whilst they manage their expectations, the world is on the brink of war and Amalia finds herself caught up within a deadly political game which could lead to war and the death of her friends.
I usually prefer my fantasy with more swords and fighting. Books which are heavy with politics bore me, and I will admit that I initially struggled to get into The Tethered Mage due to its slow start and the political landscape which the author builds. However, once I got past the initial set up I was completely hooked and devoured the rest of the book pretty quickly.
The excitement really ramps up at the half way point as Amalia and Zaira attempt to prevent war whilst gaining support for magic-user rights. Amalia isn’t a fighter, but she’s smart and thoughtful and uses those skills to try to understand and outwit her foes, and this makes her a refreshing character. She doesn’t need a weapon or violence in order to save the day. Instead, she uses her intellect to uncover conspiracies and navigate them. There are times when is completely out of her depth and vulnerable, yet she doesn’t let this stop her from being the headstrong heir she needs to be.
Zaira is also a fascinating character. Though initially bratty and rude, we come to learn more about her tragic past as she survived on the street and learned to cope with her deadly fire magic. My only disappointment is that we didn’t get to see the story from her point of view as well, which is what I initially expected going into the book. There’s plenty of great side characters. Amalia’s mother, for example, is brilliantly cool and competent as a political figure. There is a love interest in the sweet if insecure Marcello, but I’m glad the creepy prince character of Ruven remained as a creepy prince and NOT a love interest. I’ve read enough fantasy with creepy broody guys that the romance here was refreshing and sweet; and love that Amalia herself calls him out on being overprotective.
Though I initially struggled with the heavy political side of The Tethered Mage, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Caruso certainly knows how to write a tense page turner!
I was worried there would be more political heaviness in The Defiant Heir, but that wasn’t the case. In the sequel, out heroine Amalia and her fiery companion Zaira finally travel to the lands of Vaskandar to deal with Prince Creepy AKA Ruven and to avert a potential war with the Witch Lords.
Cue a fun adventure into a a whole new territory of intrigue and dark woods. I loved exploring the fascinating Vaskandar and learning how the magic of the Witch Lords is used to literally control people and nature. I also found the Witch Lords themselves rather intriguing as we meet and learn more about them. They’re an interesting collection of scary and morally gray characters so different from the world that Amalia comes from. I’m glad we had a chance to explore this side of the world, as the magic and world building is deeply fulfilling.
Speaking of Witch Lords, the sequel introduces the adorably strange Kathe, the Crow Lord, and a potential love interest for Amalia. This does create a love triangle between Amalia and Marcello, but I’ll give the story credit for making an interesting dilemma beyond “which hot boy do I pick” as Kathe represents the side of Amalia that is trapped in duty to her mother and empire, whereas Marcello, I feel, represents Amalia’s true heart, wants and desires. The love triangle isn’t resolved in this book, that’s for the third and final book, but the romantic tension builds between the three as Kathe is a fascinating creature in his own right. Amalia isn’t sure whether he can be trusted, and she starts to guard her heart against her affections for Marcello as she realises a relationship with him wouldn’t be politically advantageous.
The story itself is full of twists and action, as Zaira gets to fully unleash her powers and raise hell, and the stakes ramp up, forcing Amalia to grow into a powerful woman on her own right and make her own terrible choices.
In The Unbound Empire, the stakes are high, the action is tense, and throughout all the action and twists I kept wondering how they were going to get out of this mess as things kept going from bad to worse. Not only does Amalia and Zaira have an empire to save, but things also become personal.
Amalia deals with threats to her home and also travels once more to Vaskandar to deal with Prince Creepy once and for all. Ruven makes for an interesting villain that I love to hate, though there was a moment in this book I did feel a stab of sympathy for him. He knows just how to get under Amalia’s skin – literally – and does all he can to emotionally torture her. There are some shocking twists, and I think the author really takes the “making characters suffer” mantra seriously!
Kathe the Witch Lord is back, and the romance ramps up, putting more tension on the love triangle so that I really didn’t know who Amalia would choose by the end. Again, Amalia is forced into situations she didn’t want and given responsibilities she can’t back from. She takes this all in her stride and has really grown as a person since chapter one of The Tethered Mage. Zaira also grows and learns to face her fears as she really does unleash hell, and the two characters grow closer together as friends.
In fact, I love the side characters in The Unbound Empire, as we get to revisit characters all the way from the first book again. They all change and grow and end up where they need to be… except I feel there was one character who was really hard done by in this book and deserved better. I won’t talk about it because of spoilers, but I’d LOVE to have a chat with the author about that one!
The story wraps things up in a satisfying conclusion that nicely comes back around to The Tethered Mage and closes off any unanswered questions or plotlines. My only complaint is that I would have loved an epilogue to see how everything turns out in the future. Can we get a side story please? PLEASE?
Overall, this has been one of my favourite fantasy trilogies in years! Melissa Caruso is currently working on a new trilogy set within the same universe called The Obsidian Tower. I can’t wait to find out more!