I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
The previous book in this series, The Tethered Mage, proved to be a delightful discovery in many ways: the magic system, in which people with peculiar abilities, or Falcons, are bound for life to a sort of companion/guardian, or Falconer; the background, where the Serene Empire of Raverra reminded me strongly of 18th Century Venice, complete with shady political maneuverings and complicated plots; and the characters, of course, mainly young Amalia Cornaro, the heir to a very influent Raverran family and the unwitting Falconer to equally young Zaira, a Falcon gifted (or better, cursed) with the rare ability to master balefire, a powerful, dangerous weapon that might prove useful in the brewing war against Raverra’s enemies. Following their journey, as they got to know each other while trying to unravel a threatening conspiracy, was a charming experience, but with this second volume of the series both the narrative stakes and my enjoyment of the story took flight toward new heights.
The action starts several months after the events of book 1, and while Amalia and Zaira can now work together on easier terms, moving with baby steps toward a better understanding of each other if not actual friendship, the political situation has taken a turn for the worse: their Vaskandar neighbors, ruled by a caste of skilled magicians called Witch Lords, are once again on the move to expand their territory, threatening the Raverran Empire. Amalia finds herself in the role of envoy first, as she is sent to reassure the Empire’s allies and muster their defenses against any possible attack, and of ambassador later, when she is invited to the Conclave, the Witch Lords’ assembly that will decide whether to start a war with Raverra. To say that pace and tension keep increasing with each page would indeed be a massive understatement: where The Tethered Mage was more of an introduction to this world and what made it tick, The Defiant Heir takes us into the heat of battle, and it hardly matters that it’s one fought with words and cunning and magic rather than conventional weapons, because the outcome is just as uncertain and bloody.
The increased rhythm is mirrored by a widening of our perspective of the world of Eruvia, as we are led first to Callamorne – Raverra’s closest neighbor and ally – where some of Amalia’s relatives live and where we learn a few details about her past and, more important, her bloodline: a discovery that will prove instrumental in the unfolding events and might have interesting ramifications in the future. The journey to Vaskandar is instead imbued with danger that does not come only from the prospect of an invasion and a war that the Empire might very well lose, but from the magic wielded by the Witch Lords, who are able to extend their control over beasts and plants alike: the instances where trees take on a semblance of life (and quite hostile life at that…) attacking Amalia’s party, are among the most terrifying scenes one could imagine, and will stand in your mind just as much as the Lady of Spiders’ dress, which is enough to give nightmares to any arachnofobe…
However the characters and their development remain the most fascinating feature of the story, starting with Zaira who still retains her more evident abrasive qualities and intolerance for regulations, but has also learned to look beyond her immediate wants and needs to take into account the well-being of others, or the possibility of employing her terrifying powers for the common good. Although she still dreams of her freedom, she has come to understand that there are worse situations than being bound to Raverra and her Falconer, and that outside of the apparently stifling world of the Mews there are people who don’t think twice about exploiting a Falcon’s powers, with or without their consent – and more often than not, without. Zaira is learning the basics of compromise, and that sometimes you have to give up something to obtain something of even greater value, but more than anything else she is learning that friendship and loyalty are more than worthy of some sacrifice: she has just begun to travel on that road, and her feet still move reluctantly, but it’s a joy to observe her progress and the way the discoveries she makes along the way change her, little by little.
Amalia, for her part, evolves much more quickly and palpably: gone is the bookish girl who wanted nothing else but to study the intricacies of artifice, and in her place a skilled politician is growing slowly but surely. As it happens for all growing processes, this one is not exempt from pain: her infatuation for Captain Marcello Verdi had to be put aside in favor of the possibility of a politically advantageous marriage, and even though the relationship hardly had any time to truly coalesce, the feelings Amalia and Marcello share are strong and difficult to ignore. This situation is further complicated by the appearance of the Crow Lord Kathe, a Vaskandran who might be an ally: when Amalia accepts his courtship she is torn between her yearning for Marcello and the undeniable attraction toward Kathe, with whom she plays an interesting game of subtle double entendres and dangerous flirting, never fully knowing whether this Witch Lord is truly a potential associate or someone who will knife her in the back, but still feeling the pull of Kathe’s mercurial personality.
What I appreciated about this not-quite-triangle is that rather than focusing on the turmoil of indecision and angst, it showcases the crossroads where Amalia stands: Marcello represents the security of her old life, the potential for quiet happiness and scholarly pursuits, while Kathe carries with him the danger and uncertainties inherent in the new role of political player and influencer her mother is steering her toward – and the undeniable attraction exerted by the proverbial bad boy. And this is not the most difficult hurdle Amalia must overcome, because terrible choices lie in wait for her in the course of the dangerous mission she’s been assigned, decisions that teach her the kind of price one must pay for playing the role she so reluctantly accepted: how this dreadful awareness will factor in her future decisions is something I’m eager to discover in the next book (or books…). If the narrative progression I observed between the first and second book keeps up, I know it will be an amazing read.