‘The Tethered Mage’ by Melissa Caruso: Book Review

Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso from the publisher. This has not affected my review in any way. This review will be spoiler-free.

“If the Duke of Ardence didn’t find himself amenable to reason soon, Zaira’s balefire might become the doge’s next tool of persuasion.”

The Tethered Mage is the first book in a new fantasy series set in a world where rare individuals born with magical abilities are conscripted into the army and controlled by non-magical people called Falconers. The story is told from the point of view of Lady Amalia Cornaro, heir to the Raverran Empire, and born into a privileged upbringing filled with politics, subtlety, and duty. When Amalia inadvertently becomes a Falconer, she finds herself responsible for a powerful fire warlock named Zaira, whose temper runs as hot as her powers.

Meanwhile, the political current is changing in Raverra, their neighbours beginning to challenge the Empire’s authority. With the Empire on the brink of a war, Amalia and Zaira must overcome their differences to work together to navigate a world of politics, deceit, and power games.

On hearing about this book, I was immediately intrigued by the concept. I loved the idea of two vastly different individuals whose relationship is dictated by a power dynamic that’s been forced upon them, but who nonetheless need to learn to live with each other. I was also very intrigued by the idea of magic-users being controlled by Falconeres, and this was definitely one of the highlights of the book, since this is quite a unique idea that I don’t think I’ve come across before.

While I expected the focus of this book to be Amalia and Zaira’s relationship, I was surprised to learn how much the plot revolves around politics. The story follows the main characters as they seek to unravel political conspiracies and plots, and of course, their relationship has an impact on their ability to do this, though it doesn’t feel like the book’s main focus.

The plot is slow-moving, but feels strangely fast, since every chapter the main characters seem to come across some new piece of information, or face a new challenge. This prevents the book from falling into the trap of becoming too tedious, though it does mean that it loses some of the build-up and suspense that comes with a lot of court intrigue/fantasy novels. This gives it a very different feel to a lot of politically-themed fantasy books I’ve read, and the approach feels a lot more like that of a young adult book, than an adult fantasy.

One thing that really disappointed me about this book is that it rarely felt like the characters were any real danger. Any dilemmas they were faced with during the book were resolved quickly, meaning that I didn’t really have the chance to get an idea of the gravity of the situation.

Another issue I  had is that the characters all feel fairly one-dimensional. On the one hand, Amalia Cornaro is a great protagonist: she’s smart, brave, and has a sense of agency, something which a lot of protagonists in fantasy books are somehow still lacking. However, I never really felt like I gained a deep understanding of Amalia’s character, and at times it felt like she was too perfect: she thought of solutions to problems too quickly, and there were never really any moments of true weakness or doubt.

Zaira too, could have been developed more, and I found that her character lacked subtlety – any hidden depths or surprises were spelled out unambiguously, and I think it would have been really interesting for her to have more mystery. The relationship between these two characters had a lot of potential, and I enjoyed the moments when Zaira antagonises Amalia.

In a lot of ways, this book feels more like a young adult than an adult fantasy novel. It didn’t have the level of darkness that I’ve grown to expect (and love) in adult fantasy, and neither did it have the subtlety or complexity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since different readers like different levels of complexity, but for me, it meant this book felt like it was missing something.

Another thing The Tethered Mage doesn’t take a subtle approach to is romance. From the very start of the book, it’s obvious which character will be the “love interest”. This is also something that develops fairly quickly, and doesn’t really have a huge amount of grounding. Whilst the “love interest” himself is likable, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between the two characters, and would have liked to see more build-up.

One of the highlights of this book is the diversity. Two of the most prominent secondary characters are a same-sex couple, and one of the primary characters is attracted to both men and women. This is something that a lot of fantasy books are lacking, and I would love to see more of. I did have a couple of doubts about the bisexual representation, since it seemed to fit a couple of stereotypes that I’m a little tired of, but for the most part, it was nice to see different kinds of identities represented.

Whilst I’m not sure this book was suited to my taste in fantasy, it has a number of qualities that make it a really accessible fantasy book. I would liken it to The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, or A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas – only with much less focus on romance than any of these books. In particular, I think that readers who enjoyed The Scarecrow Queen – the final novel in Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter trilogy – might also enjoy this, since both share similar themes of politics, court intrigue, and female empowerment, without turning into a Game of Thrones-style epic.

This is a book that I would describe as having some positive aspects, and a lot of interesting ideas, but which on the whole just didn’t manage to really excite me.

“One wrong word, whether of submission or of rebellion, could reroute the rest of my life.”

Rating: 3/5

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