The Tethered Mage: scorching fantasy debut

Book cover: The Tethered Mage - Melissa Caruso (a blueblack bird and a woman's silhouette on an orange background)Amalia Cornaro is a good-hearted scholar who likes wearing trousers. She’s also the daughter of La Contessa, the most powerful woman in the Empire. And she’s just forged an unbreakable bond with Zaira, the most destructive warlock the Empire has seen in centuries. Life’s about to get complicated…

I’ve been sitting on a copy of The Tethered Mage since Christmas, and life has just kept getting in the way with things I was obliged to read first. So I’m delighted to have finally been able to make time for it, and if I’m kicking myself a little bit for not doing so sooner I’m not doing so too hard (because let’s be fair: this is only the second book I’ve read this year that wasn’t either an ARC, a read-along or nominated for Subjective Chaos – and I read the other one on New Year’s Day). Reading it now has meant I could give it my undivided attention, and just settle in to enjoy it.

The Tethered Mage is a gloriously uncomplicated pleasure. I don’t mean to say its simplistic – it has a twisty whodunnit political potboiler of a plot – I mean that it’s fantasy I could relax into. This isn’t a fantasy about a world literally falling apart or a world of horrific prejudices; it’s a coming of age novel about loyalty and friendship. There’s no hint of sexism and a splash of f/f interest (as well as a nod to being bi).

It’s based in Raverra, heart of the Serene Empire – a city reminiscent of Venice (La Serenissima, after all), complete with canals and boats and a lagoon. The Doge is elected and rules with the Council of Nine; La Contessa is one of only four nobles whose seat on the Council is hereditary. Clever, beautiful and ruthless, she’s a wee bit concerned that her daughter Amalia is bookish and retiring; but she gives her daughter plenty of rope to see what she learns rather than being domineering and controlling.

…which isn’t to say that Amalia (and everyone else) isn’t a little bit terrified of her. She is La Contessa, after all. Most of the city are convinced she has people executed for breakfast. She might do – her right-hand woman Ciardha is ferociously competent, and not the sort to hold her hand just because of the time of day.

La Contessa’s policy of limited interference and judicious disappointment in her daughter goes awry one afternoon when Amalia ventures into the Tallows in search of a rare book (yes, The Tethered Mage frequently involves the lengths to which people will go to get hold of rare books. OF COURSE I LOVED IT) and comes home irrevocably tethered to the most dangerous warlock of her generation. The noble houses never tether mages – the mages (known as Falcons) are all controlled by the Doge, and they are the key to Raverra’s security. In one fell swoop, Amalia has saved the city from burning down; (accidentally) bound herself to an angry young woman who would quite like to finish what she started; and trapped herself between La Contessa and the Doge.

Unwilling Falcon Zaira is a riot – a street thief who has spent her life on the run guarding her secret to avoid being tethered. She’s smart, fierce and unafraid of saying what she thinks, practiced at armouring her heart and looking out for her own interests. Needless to say, she’s not interested in ‘making the best’ of her new situation on a leash.

The novel would have kept me perfectly happy if it had explored the consequences of Amalia’s actions and her attempts to win Zaira over. There’s so much to learn about the politics and the City, not to mention the blend of erudition, magic and alchemy at play in the world. Amalia herself is a delight: stubbornly good-hearted, compassionate and – given time to work it through – insightful.

But Ardence, the city-state Amalia studied in, is chafing under the perceived yoke of the Serene Accords. Inevitably, Amalia’s bookish friends are caught up in the political unrest – and it quickly becomes obvious that there are more players in the game and higher stakes than trade tariffs. Outside influences and underhand deals could leave the entire Empire open to the ruthlessly-deployed magics of the northern Witch Lords.

I loved the twists and turns. The book takes time to show Amalia level up her understanding of her mother’s world and the political arena she will one day enter herself; to examine the bonds of friendship and loyalty in conflict with loyalty to family and country; and along the way just keeps unpacking vibrant world-building. It then examines its own world – Zaira skewers Amalia’s privilege, and the agitators of Ardence have fair points to make about imbalances in their city’s relationship with Raverra. The Falcons themselves have a life of privilege but no freedom – and all this is made relevant to the political plots twisting around the personal ones.

It was a joy from start to finish, with each new member of the supporting cast worming their way into my affections (youthful alchemists, ruthlessly efficient middle-aged lady spies – what’s not to like?). I even loved the romance, which is unusual for me but which struck just the right note. A highly enjoyable read that make certain I’ll be finishing the series and looking out for anything else by Melissa Caruso.