Book Review: Tethered Mage

Tethered Mage by Melissa CarusoI’m finally catching up with my NetGalley duties. This week, in the few hours when dogs and work didn’t demand my attention, I read Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso. It doesn’t come out until October 24th, but for those who are interested in a meditation on all the ways we can be enslaved, set in a world where magic is recognized as dangerous, this is a compelling, literary take on high fantasy.

Here’s the blurb:

In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.

Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.

Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations.

But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

I had hesitated to sign up for this one, since I’m more than a little leery of the next YA/NA Big Thing, but the concept piqued my curiosity, and I’m glad I picked up this story.

The parallels among the various traps for people who strive to fit in, meet expectations, or use their abilities are most clearly illustrated by the tethering process that captures Zaira and controls her out-of-control balefire. But reviewers who get stuck on that most obvious constriction miss the constriction of class that doesn’t allow Lady Amalia to follow her heart. Or the trap of birth that means otherwise ambitious characters alternately do everything possible to avoid their fate, as with Domenic Bergandon, or subvert their fate as Amalia’s uncle Ignazio and Ardence’s Steward, Lady Colanthe Savony do.

Aside from the thematic struggle against the visible and invisble boundaries that class, magical abilities, location of birth, and other pertinent demarcations most known societies struggle to come to terms with, the story is framed as a political thriller. It’s as gripping as anything Dan Brown or Tom Clancy might come up with, with more subtlety and complexity because of the diversity of the cast of characters as well as the fillip of magic that will always pique my curiosity.

Also, the language Caruso uses… each character has his/her own voice, the idioms are unique to that world (I have to say I loved the way the Hells and Graces were woven throughout), and the structure and tone support the weight of the theme being discussed.

There really wasn’t anything I didn’t like about the story. So when I started working on this review, and began researching what others had to say about the book, I was perplexed by the number of low ratings and DNF notations both on Amazon and Goodreads. There’s a part of me that really wants to shake these folks and point out to them that fiction is an entirely appropriate place to ruminate about social ills; if you’re that sensitive about slavery, it suggests to me you haven’t considered the sneaky ways society has trapped you. I say this as a working woman, well aware of the freight that comes with both of those categories. Slavery may be just the most obvious and repugnant experience of entrapment–but that’s exactly what makes it worth unpacking. Exploring the theoretical boundaries and parallels it might have with other experiences.

So I will strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a political thriller that confronts some dark topics in unconventional ways. It’s a story full of surprises and worth digesting for the surprises it reveals about the ways an unconventional/unrecognized slavery can warp a person.

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