The Tethered Mage is an excellent fantasy debut, if a little YA for my tastes. It benefits tremendously from a rich, Venetian-inspired setting, a well-crafted plot, and two strong leads.
Heiress Amalia is pulled into empire politics when chance (and a little bravery) leads to Amalia becoming tied to Zaira, the human equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. What follows is more of a political thriller than you might expect.
Amalia is the only child of La Contessa, doyenne of one of the most powerful families in the Raverran Empire. The family’s permanent seat on the empire’s ruling council will eventually pass to Amalia. Who would love nothing more than to spend the rest of her life in the study of magic (theory, not practice). That is about to change.
Amalia is returning from a search for a rare book when she happens on a young woman being accosted in the street. That young woman, Zaira, is a [fire-mage] and can take care of herself. It is everyone else that has to worry. The entire city is in danger unless she is “jessed,” the magical means by which the Raverran Empire controls magic users. Amalia risks her life to place the jess, and when it is damaged, she is going to be a part of the “Falcons” whether she likes it or not.
That creates a political complication. Nobles are not allowed to serve as Falcons. And it would be unheard of for the heir of a great house to serve directly under the doge. The political complications that creates, and the increased role for Amalia in those politics, drives much of the plot.
Raverra, the seat of the Raverran Empire and Amalia’s home, bears a distinct resemblance to early modern Venice, with everything from canals to a doge. (There is a phenomenal book about Venice at the height of its powers by Roger Crowley called City of Fortune, by the way.)
If the “jesses” used to control magic users sounds suspiciously like the a’dam used to control damane in The Wheel of Time, I suspect that is intentional. The fire Zaire wields is called “balefire” and there is a reference to magic users “channeling.” It might be more of a hat tip than a real influence, though, because the terms are only rarely used after the beginning of the book, and the jesses play a smaller role than you might think. This is not a slave rebellion story (or at least it isn’t yet).
There is a lot to like here. I loved both Amalia and Zaira. Zaira doesn’t get as much attention, but she tends to steal the show. Amalia’s relationship with her mother provides conflict without being hostile, which is welcome. Caruso has a knack for writing minor characters that pop. Count Ruven is suitably chilling.
But the best thing about The Tethered Mage is how carefully Caruso constructs the plot. Zaira is the Checkov’s Gun, just waiting there on the mantle to be set off (and maybe destroy a city in the process). That provides a lot of the tension. There are very real stakes not just because Amalia doesn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of a city full of people but because someone may be working behind the scenes to manipulate the Empire into taking that step.
Amalia and Zaira occasionally pick up the Idiot Ball to advance the plot—a particular problem with YA speculative fiction, in my experience—but Caruso is really good at snappy, unexpected, and satisfying resolutions, even if the setup is a little clichéd.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: A blogger friend passed along an advance review copy of The Tethered Mage.