Book Review: The Defiant Heir
I said in my review of The Tethered Mage that it was good - not mind-blowing, and lacking in that extra something special. But I was still excited to read the sequel, and then before I knew it, my eyeballs were just freaking glued to the goddamn page. Welcome to a sequel that improves on its predecessor in big ways.
In the wake of The Tethered Mage, Amalia has gained political power of her own, and she's using to push a bill that would free the Falcons. Yet all that changes when Falcons start going missing. At first, it seems like they're being killed, but the truth is worse: they're being kidnapped. Vaskandar is preparing for war, and Amalia and Zaira must travel to the border and beyond to stop the plots of a familiar face. Oh, and did I mention Amalia is courting a Witch Lord too? Because she doesn't have enough on her plate.
Seriously, this book is gold. Whatever magical quality the first one was missing, The Defiant Heir has it in spades. It grabbed me from its first pages and never let me go, and I raced through its pages to find out what would happen next. Caruso has an incredible talent for making her world's politics feel real and threatening; some of the book's most tense moments occur not when Amalia is in clear physical danger, but when she's at a party confronting an enemy or trying to persuade a potential ally.
And goodness, the character development here. Amalia continues to grow and explore her own power, and the book culminates in a very important decision for her, where she's forced to choose between the life of one and the lives of the many. It's a decision that makes her deeply uncomfortable, as it should, but it also shows how she has matured. The Amalia of The Tethered Mage probably couldn't have made that choice. I still maintain a solid respect for Caruso's decision not to make Amalia a good fighter; it's incredibly refreshing to have a character who must win by making alliances, not by fighting. Even better, Caruso also resists the temptation to give Amalia magic, despite revealing a heritage that stretches back into Vaskandar.
Amalia's relationships with the other characters deepen too. Her interactions with Marcello are heartbreaking as they come to a realization: their relationship simply can't be if Amalia wants to remain in power. Her brief scenes with her mother carry a weight that was missing in The Tethered Mage, since Amalia now knows something of the burden her mother carries.
Then there's Zaira. Unlike The Tethered Mage, which skirted the issue of the Falcons' imprisonment and (in)voluntary service, The Defiant Heir tackles it head-on with Zaira. As she and Amalia head straight into Vaskandar, where Zaira's abilities make her basically royalty, Zaira and Amalia have to grapple with an all-important question: should Zaira even return to Raverra? Or should she stay in Vaskandar, where she would be free? Zaira certainly gives it a lot of thought, and the same question is posed for a group of kidnapped Falcons. I'm not going to spoil what they choose, but the important thing is that they are given a real choice.
Zaira herself also struggles with breaking down the emotional walls she's built. Her romantic relationship with Terika, another Falcon, serves as the focal point for this dilemma; Zaira's afraid of hurting Terika, so she tries to push her away. In the end, though, Zaira consents to allow others behind her walls, including not just Terika but also Amalia as Zaira finally concedes that they might be friends. (Also - yay, LBTQIA+ representation!)
And that's saying nothing of the new cast of characters. There's Amalia's family on her father's side, including a grandmother who shines bright in the few scenes we see. And holy hell, there's the Witch Lords. They are a terrifying yet intriguing bunch. Far and away my favorite is Kathe, the Crow Lord, who enters a courtship with Amalia early in the book. He's a strong play on the trickster archetype, but he's engaging and his interactions with Amalia are some of the book's best moments. Amalia's never sure if she can trust him, and neither are we, but damn if it isn't fun to watch. There's the Lady of Thorns, a villain with a strong and understandable motive. There's the Lady of Eagles, related to Amalia on her father's side, a dignified and stately woman (clearly, it runs in her family from all directions).
Oh, and did I mention Ruven's back? And he's just as despicable as before. More so, even, and when the extent of his plans are revealed, I had to repress a shudder. As diabolical plans go, this one is quite a terror.
Somehow, on top of all these amazing characters and a really fantastic, well-paced plot, Caruso manages to ladle on a heaping helping of excellent worldbuilding--and it's almost entirely about Vaskandar. We learn about the Witch Lords and their powers organically along with Amalia and Zaira, and it's a great choice for world expansion, since not much information about Vaskandar came to light in The Tethered Mage. The Witch Lords are effectively immortal, and Caruso has thought through the implications of that on multiple levels.
In the end, Amalia is triumphant--sort of. She wins a battle at great cost, but the rest of the war is yet to come. And I cannot freaking wait.