The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a deliberately paced, measured, but thoroughly absorbing story. It has somewhat of an old-fashioned feel about it, which fits the setting of a thinly disguised Renaissance Italy. If, say, this alternate-history Venice was also brimming with mages and dangerous magic, which sets up some interesting ethical conundrums I wish had been more deeply explored. Ah well, maybe in the second book.
The conceit behind the worldbuilding is the bald statement that mages, if they existed, would consider themselves superior to non-magical humans and set themselves up as rulers, leading to the non-magical humans taking some pretty drastic measures to rein them in. In this world of Eruvia's past, this included the outright slaughter of mages in some countries, and in others (such as the Serene Empire) the mages being controlled by magical "jesses," which is a non-removable bracelet that effectively locks their powers down under the person who placed the jess on them, also known as a Falconer. Naturally, this carries some unpleasant slavery connotations, but at the same time one can hardly blame the Falconers, since many mages can rain down death and destruction. The titular character, the fire warlock Zaira, can burn entire cities if her abilities are unrestrained. Zaira has also murdered people in the past, including her own parents.
(There's also the nasty Skinwitches of the neighboring country of Vaskandar. The way this book ends, I imagine they will be the villains going forward, but man, they creeped me out.)
Into this heady mix is thrown our protagonist and narrator, Lady Amalia Cornaro, who commits the classic blunder of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus forced to harness Zaira, creating a binding that will only end with one of their deaths. But Amalia is the daughter of the La Contessa Lissandra Cornaro, one of the members of the Empire's capital city Raverra's Council of Nine. A big deal, in other words, and a big no-no for the daughter of La Contessa to have a Falcon. Zaira's tethering starts this story off, and it evolves into a dense tale of politics, court intrigue, treachery, and Amalia's attempts to prevent an all-out war.
In the process, Amalia grows from a sheltered, bookish young woman pretty much under her mother's thumb into a confident, strong Falconer embracing her new role and helping to put an end to the looming conflict. (Although the La Contessa Cornaro is not the Wicked Mother she originally appears to be, either. All these characters are refreshingly layered and throw the reader some surprises.) I do wish the ethics of the Falconer system would have been discussed more, as some characters are dead set against it, while others regard it as a necessary evil. I also hope the fiery, irrepressible Zaira gets some POV chapters, as I would love to get more insight into her. But this book held my attention throughout, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.
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