The Unbound Empire (Swords and Fire #3)

Book cover: The Unbound Empire - Melissa Caruso (a woman in a flame-coloured ballgown seen from behind, merging into the outline of a flame-coloured crow in flight)Winter has come. The passes to Vaskandar are closed, holding Ruven at bay to brew his potion and cement his power. It’s time for Amalia to challenge the Empire and demand equality for the mage-marked. But snow is no barrier to a Witchlord…

I am going to try – very hard – to keep this review spoiler-free. The Unbound Empire is a thrilling finale to an epic trilogy; and while I’m sad to bid farewell to Lady Amalia Cornaro and her allies, I’m very excited to learn there will be another series set in Eruvia starting next year.

Swords and Fire has quickly become one of my favourite fantasy series, and marks an epic debut from author Melissa Caruso. Starting with The Tethered Mage, she has demonstrated a staggering talent for thoughtful world-building, compelling characters and fast-moving yet intricate plots. These books are incredibly easy to read, without being flimsy or shallow.

The core plot may involve an unequivocally evil, self-satisfied uber-villain trying to seize power, but the consideration given to the imbalances within the Empire and the ethics of Vaskandran Witchlords make for a satisfying, often complex dish. With each book, it has become trickier to determine what is right from what is expedient; and the toll the escalating challenges have taken on our once-pure heroes has become ever harder to bear.

The Unbound Empire asks whether there is any line that cannot be crossed in service to preserving serenity (and freedom). Once again, Lord Ruven is three steps ahead, with Amalia and Zaira on the back foot to try and fend off his latest devious assault. Once again, they will need to travel to Ardence and Vaskandar, pulling together threads left dangling from previous books in a glorious web of narrative completeness and emotional devastation. Amalia will have to choose who she loves best – if she can bear it – and how to best serve the Empire.

I fell in love hard and fast with Lady Amalia Cornaro. I couldn’t resist the under-achieving heir to the most-feared and most-powerful noblewoman in the Empire; a principled bookworm with a geeky flair for magical philosophy and arcane sciences. This trilogy has seen her grow into a gifted politician in her own right and seen her willingly embrace responsibilities she would once have fled from. But the price is high. She cannot achieve her all goals – or fulfil her all duties – and marry the man she loves. She cannot protect those she loves from a foe as unprincipled or as powerful as Lord Ruven. And she cannot defeat him without blood being spilled. The dilemma she will face is whose blood it will be – and who will spill it.

My reading notes for The Unbound Empire are incoherent screaming from almost the very beginning. Amalia wrestles with the impossible choices forced upon her; Lord Kathe is back and as bewitching as ever; La Contessa is so proud of her daughter (and this killed me; it was always clear to me that Lissandra loved Amalia, but now Amalia can see it too); Zaira is saltier than she has ever been; and Marcello’s love and loyalties are tested like never before.

It is an epic and emotional rollercoaster. I can say very little more without scattering spoilers. If the action in Vaskandar felt like a step back after the rapid escalation in Raverra and Ardence, the narrative more than made up for it with the personal stakes and the depth of emotion it evoked (yes, yes, I cried in public again). This isn’t a fantasy that can be resolved by huge armies clashing in fields, or harrowing sieges. As I should have expected from everything that has gone before, this is about the enormous consequences of personal decisions, and the loneliness we face in making them.

Absolutely devastating in the best possible way.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I’ll be buying a physical copy when I go to the States later this year to match the gorgeous girls already on my bookshelf (the UK edition is a different size, ARGH).