Book Review: The Tethered Mage
I'm normally pretty targeted with my trips to the bookstore; if I don't know what I'm going in for, I walk out $100+ poorer. But The Tethered Mage called out to me from a bookshelf and became a surprise purchase. The promise of two cool lady protagonists was too much to pass up.
The Tethered Mage follows Lady Amalia Cornaro, daughter of the most powerful woman in the Serene Empire of Raverra. She's not sure she's really up to the task of inheriting her mother's power, but when she accidentally becomes Falconer to the Empire's only fire warlock, she'll have to grow up quickly. War is brewing, and Amalia only has a few days to stop the warmongering culprit. If she doesn't succeed, she'll have to give the order to burn a city to the ground.
I bought this book for the ladies, and they did not disappoint. Amalia and her fire warlock Zaira are both very fun to read. Amalia in particular is satisfying, in that she feels like an average Jane, as much as a wealthy heiress can. She's not particularly good at combat; she's clever but not exceptionally so. She's got a lot of money, but that doesn't solve all her problems. She stumbles her way through a lot of the book, making mistakes, and she only makes it out through sheer determination and her desire to do good. It's easy for the reader to see herself in Amalia, which makes her an engaging character to read.
Zaira is a bit more complex because of what she is. Powerful magic users in this world are "mage marked," a striation or color in their eyes that makes it apparent what they're capable of. In Raverra, the mage-marked are held in a sort of quasi-captivity by law. Known as Falcons, these mage-marked are bonded by a jess to a Falconer, who can control when they use their powers. It's reminiscent of the damane and the a'dam from Jordan's Wheel of Time--a little prettier and less dehumanizing, but slavery nonetheless.
As a fire warlock, Zaira is incredibly powerful, and thus incredibly dangerous. When Amalia puts the jess on her, Zaira's freedom disappears and she becomes a weapon in the hand of Raverra's doge. Zaira is stubborn and angry and full of passion, and it's hard to fault her for hating Amalia and the other Falconers. At the same time, she's scared of her power; it's resulted in the death of loved ones. The jess prevents her from unintentionally hurting anyone else.
I don't think the book really plumbs the depths of this conundrum and Zaira's uncomfortable situation. I mean, she's basically dehumanized to a weapon of mass destruction for a large portion of the novel by many of the characters. I'm not satisfied with her almost-immediate truce with Amalia; it feels like she gives up too easily. There are hints here and there that she will work for change, and Amalia agrees to help to a degree, but it feels like Zaira is rather isolated in her dislike of the system which makes...no sense.
But I digress. Aside from the magical slavery, the world is a nice take on Italian city-states, with Raverra obviously modeled on Venice. The politics are out in force, and it's fun to read a book where a scene at a party is every bit as dangerous and edgy as a chase sequence. Gender equality is strong, and most of the characters who hold true power are women. And there's an excellent looming threat: Vaskandar, a land of powerful witches who lord it over the rest of their people. Prince Ruvan is the up-close example of this, a talented Skinwitch, and he is terrifying. He's not the BBEG for this particular novel, but it's easy to see that Amalia will have to do something about him eventually.
The BBEG for this novel did actually surprise me, so I've gotta give credit where credit is due. I only called about half the ending. The Tethered Mage moves slow at the beginning while Amalia is still in Raverra, but once she leaves, the plot speeds up and moves quickly through major event after major event. I ended up finishing the book in less than two days.
It's a good novel, and definitely one I'd recommend if you're looking for a solid fantasy. It didn't blow me away--it lacked that certain extra something that takes a book from good to great and beyond--but the world feels lived in and Amalia is a refreshing character for not being anywhere close to a Mary Sue.