Book cover: The Defiant Heir - Melissa Caruso (a white bird silhouetted on a blue background, its tail suggesting a woman in a white ball gown)Amalia Cornaro is learning to live in the political limelight. A Witch Lord pursues her hand in marriage. La Contessa seeks a diplomatic solution to an impending war. And it’s anybody’s guess who can unleash a greater fiery hell on the northern border: Zaira or the ambitious prince of Vaskandar. Can Amalia keep the Empire serene?

Melissa Caruso cements her status as a new favourite with this gripping, pyrotechnic sequel to The Tethered Mage. It’s rare I read a book without finding something to twitch at (I’m picky and opinionated, and I know it) however much I enjoy it anyway… but these books may be the exception. The combination of character, politics and magic is catnip for me, and I adore its glittering, sharp-edged cast. The longer I have to think about them, the more I love these books.

So why do I adore Amalia Cornaro? However much I get scorned for it on Reddit, I delight in the fact that she would rather be wearing trousers and reading a book. Every single time she has a clothing crisis and decides to wear something comfortable with pockets, I punch the air. It’s a knowing wink for the female reader frustrated by modern fashion and a telling cue to her character – the daughter of La Contessa has expectations to meet and her society expects swishy elegance and sartorial poise.

She’s a low-key rebel, people.

Still, Amalia Cornaro is dutiful. She knows she will ascend to the Council one day, and in The Defiant Heir she’s embracing her future and learning from her fearsome mother. While she’s frequently as naive as you’d expect a sheltered, over-privileged, scholarly girl to be, she’s mastering the art of reading – and influencing – events. And she’s determined to use her privilege to benefit others – starting with freeing the Falcons from the Doge’s tether.

Amalia alone would win me over, but this fantasy is full of vibrant, compelling women of the sort I didn’t get to read about whilst I was growing up. I am so glad La Contessa – dominant though she is – isn’t a heartless, pushy mother. Yes, she has high expectations, but she’s ruthlessly pragmatic. I honestly believe she’d allow Amalia to retire to the country and groom a new heir if she didn’t believe Amalia could and would rise to her inheritance.

Then there’s Ciardha, so effortlessly competent it’s probably just as well she’s barely on the page so she can’t steal the show (secret wishes: a spin off novel about the adventures of a younger Ciardha). Or young genius Istrella, all steampunk goggles and alchemical engineering – and a pragmatic streak a mile wide. She is at once a cinnamon roll and a terrifying realist, with a conscience far more flexible than her brother Marcello’s – or Amalia’s.

As for Zaira – Amalia’s tethered mage – her powers only get more intimidating as she improves her control of them. She’s a human weapon of mass destruction, only very slightly more biddable than the day she was first tethered. The Defiant Heir does an excellent job of fleshing Zaira out. Her appetites are as contagious as her (over-)confidence; her ever-simmering rage is intense; but in Heir we truly come to understand what has shaped her gruff exterior and hard-eyed isolation. I oscillated between heartache and frustration, desperately wanting her to permit herself to enjoy the happiness in her grasp.

…and there’s the rub. Ultimately, she can’t be happy whilst she’s leashed.

Honestly, I could enthuse about the characters and their internal conflicts all day (I’ve barely started. Really. I haven’t even begun to talk about the fractures in Amalia’s relationship with Zaira; or the uncertainty of whether Zaira hates the Witch Lords more than her leash; or the epic crush I developed on Kathe) – but there’s also plot to get excited about!

Where The Tethered Mage showed us the stresses within the Raverran Empire, The Defiant Heir shifts focus to the borders. Prince Ruven of Vaskandar is determined to become a Witch Lord in his own right, and is trying to persuade his peers to declare war. He’s also figured out how to harness a volcano – giving him enough firepower to outmatch even Zaira (…and that’s just for starters; the fringe benefits – when they were spelled out – were impressively villainous).

Cue extravagant world-building as Amalia and Zaira head north. The Witch Lords operate a sort of magical feudalism, the lives of everyone and everything in their territory bound to that of the Witch Lord that rules it. The resulting balance of power is incredibly fragile, with each Witch Lord having near-divine powers and neither love for nor trust in their neighbours. I love the way Melissa Caruso outlines basic conditions that sound fascinating in principle, then explores the implicit horrors.

The stakes feel much higher in Heir than in Mage – if Ruven’s plot succeeds, there will not only be a staggering number of immediate casualties, but many more people will find themselves under his direct control. And Ruven isn’t actually a Witch Lord yet: when we finally meet them, they’re stronger and in at least one case scarier than he is.

Amalia is hopelessly outmatched, even with Zaira at her side and the notional support of her Witch Lord beau, Kathe. The Crow Lord is intelligent, crafty and probably not to be trusted – he makes no secret of the fact he wants her hand in marriage for his own reasons, and he enjoys playing games. Obviously I adored him from the start.

Yes, I know. I mostly don’t do romance, and I hate love triangles. Right? RIGHT? …wrong. I don’t know how Melissa Caruso does it, but she had me on board with one of my least favourite tropes from the minute Kathe walked on. My crush on Kathe is extensive (I do adore an unreliable ally) and Marcello is adorable. Poor Amalia. Yet all this emotional conflict is handled with minimal melodrama: there’s much turmoil, but little angst.

The angst – quite rightly – is saved up for the secrets that are uncovered and the choices that have to be made. The Defiant Heir has Amalia coming to appreciate what it will really mean to follow in her mother’s footsteps (…if she lives that long). Combined with the pitch-black setting of Vaskandar, it makes for a less casual read than The Tethered Mage – but it remains a glorious rollercoaster. I found it almost as impossible to put down as it has been to write sensibly about it (seriously, how long is this review now? THERE IS SO MUCH MORE FLAILING I COULD DO).

I am helplessly looking forward to The Unbound Empire, and already a little sad that it will close out the trilogy. Easily one of my favourite reads of the year; expect me to be recommending it forever.

*****

Full disclosure: I won my copy of The Defiant Heir in a giveaway. I then went straight out and bought a physical copy of The Tethered Mage to keep it company on the shelf, because I love these books that much.