The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso. Book Review

THE TETHERED MAGE by Melissa Caruso
Orbit, p/b, 480pp, £8.99
Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins

Lady Amalia Cornaro takes a boat to the poorest parts of the city in search of a book, knowing full well her mother’s spies are bound to report her activity. But by the time La Contessa hears of it, it will be too late, and getting her hands on such a rare book is worth the risk. It is all going smoothly until a gang of ruffians have a young woman surrounded, and Amalia cannot let them get away with it.

Their victim, it seems, is not as helpless as she appeared, and now her attackers, Amalia, and the city itself, are in danger. As she steps in to help, little does Amalia realise she is binding herself to the girl and to a new life in the bargain. Her mother is not going to be pleased. Amalia will now find herself firmly in the notice of the doge and all the political machinations of the empire.

With the noblewoman’s one brave act, Zaira’s fate is written, and now the Cornaro heir holds the ultimate power over her. Orphan and slave – though up until today she has managed to avoid the man who claims to own her – Zaira survives by theft and by hiding, and now her life must change. She is hardly the ideal companion for a young noblewoman, and a young noblewoman is hardly the ideal companion for a street-smart warlock. The future of the Serene Empire may depend on them, but can they depend on each other?

In The Tethered Mage Caruso turns what could have been a stale and often repeated idea on its head, creating a new and interesting dynamic between its main characters. The narrative is told entirely from Amalia’s point of view, but it is Zaira who is the magic user, so we have a magic user bound by a non-magic user, and a story focused on the non-magic user coming to terms with her control and responsibility over the other, rather than the orphan-with-power-discovering-its-strengths-and-limitations route.

This story reads exceptionally well; you will be a third of the way in before you realise it. As a protagonist of noble birth, Amalia is just rebellious enough to be admired, and Zaira’s resistance and hard exterior provide some great moments of relatable humour and add tension and an unpredictable edge to Amalia’s dilemmas. This is a strong debut and the follow up will be welcome, particularly as with much of this story resolved by the end it is not too easy to predict where the narrative will head next.