I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Lately I have been particularly lucky when choosing debut novels to read, and The Tethered Mage was one such great find: the story is set in what looks like an alternate version of 18th Century Venice, with the city of Raverra and its canals and waterways as the playing field; my past visits to the real Venice helped me to see the city being described here, adding to the enjoyment of a well-painted background. Raverra has extended its influence over the surrounding countries, particularly the neighboring city of Ardence, whose restless nobility feels the ever-increasing need for more independence, the fires of freedom further kindled by the powerful realm of Vaskandar whose ambitions are equal only to its ruthlessness. Raverra, however, has been able to maintain its standing thanks to the strong politics of its Council and ruling Doge and to its ability to exploit the magic of gifted individuals.
And it’s indeed with the magic system that this novel forges an interesting path, because the rare and precious mages that are Raverra’s strength and deterrent are carefully screened since infancy for the tell-tale colored ring around their irises, and once discovered are corralled to the island enclave of the Mews, where their powers are harnessed through a bracelet called jess. The jess tethers each mage (or Falcon) to their handler the Falconer, in a partnership that only death can dissolve: according to a person’s point of view, such an arrangement can be seen either as slavery or symbiosis and that is one of the story’s main themes, the ethics of channeling useful or potentially dangerous abilities by effectively placing a gifted person under life-long tutelage.
Zaira is a formidable and quite unique fire mage, the most dangerous kind, and she’s been able to move under the Falconers’ radar for a long time until she’s forced to unleash her powers in self-defense: that’s when Falconer captain Verdi enrolls the help of a young woman to put a jess on Zaira, not knowing that his improvised assistant is Amalia Cornaro, heir to the most powerful woman in the Raverran council. Amalia finds herself saddled with the responsibilities of a Falconer, a duty that clashes with those imposed on her status as The Contessa’s daughter, and what’s more her Falcon deeply resents her both as a Falconer and as a representative of the pampered ruling class.
The dichotomy between these two young women, so very different in origins and character, is one of the supporting themes in The Tethered Mage and makes for a very interesting journey in which both of them have a great deal to discover by getting to know each other, overcoming diffidence and prejudices: the trope of very different people thrown together by fate and having to learn how to cooperate is one I’ve always found interesting, and in this case I appreciated it even more because it avoided the clichéd pitfall of the man/woman pairing that turns from hate to love. By linking these two girls and having them cooperate through a crisis, we learn more about the society they live in and at the same time we get to know and like them as characters – with the added bonus that the increased understanding of each other does not change who they basically are but more simply the way they perceive their counterpart.
I found Zaira to be the most fascinating of the two – not least because there is so much about her that is barely glimpsed, leaving a great deal of mystery about her past: she’s strongly independent, although the choice of keeping apart from others stems from some dark, dramatic roots, and she’s also brash and outspoken, and quite proud of that – to the point that contact with the higher strata of society fails to compel her to soften that approach, with quite amusing results. On the other hand Amalia, despite being the first-person narrator, comes across as slightly less interesting because of the shades of predictability that weigh on her character: if I liked the fact that she’s what we would nowadays call a “nerd”, due to her preference to magical and technical studies over politics or fancy parties, I felt that part of her journey was overshadowed by the required romantic entanglement and her role as the problem-solving heroine.
What makes Amalia stand out, however, is the relationship with her formidable mother: the two women are often in disagreement over Amalia’s life choices and her mother’s need to groom her as a successor, but instead of taking the path of all-out conflict they bridge their differences through mutual respect and a deep love that comes across quite strongly even if it remains mostly unexpressed. If anything, this novel is a showcase for strong female characters that know how to work with difficult situations and overcome many obstacles: as I said, Amalia is less effective in this field if compared with her mother or Zaira (or the Contessa’s right-hand helper Ciardha, a character I hope will get more narrative space in the next novels, because she’s beyond intriguing), but her willingness to put herself to the test and not give up, even in the face of unsurmountable odds, more than makes up for that.
Apart from the characters’ journey, The Tethered Mage is enriched by the fascinating power plays that constitute its backbone, a complicated dance of political expediency, back-room plotting and outright betrayals that speed up the pace in the second half of the novel and that kept me glued to the pages until I reached the resolution. And if the “bad guys” sometimes feel a little over the top (especially when they tend to explain their dastardly plot to a soon-to-be-killed-captive, as in the oldest narrative tradition), or if their identity is too easily gleaned, the story is so exciting that it’s not difficult to put the Inner Critic to sleep so that we can lay back and enjoy the adventure, one that I will be happy to follow in the next installments.