(2018) Melissa Caruso, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 520pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51062-0
The Defiant Heir is the second book in 'The Swords and Fire' series. Ideally, you would read the first, The Tethered Mage, before you tackle this so you can understand how the characters got to where they are.
Lady Amalia Cornaro is the daughter of one of the Council of Nine, the ruling body of Raverra, but also accidentally a Falconer responsible for and tied by magic to a fire mage Zaria. Amalia know that war will mean compelling Zaria to unleash flames across enemy lands taking the guilty and innocent alike, which is a scenario she does not want to face, so travels to enemy land and uses everything she has to avert that.
The relationship between Amalia and Zaria is central to this book premise. Initially Zaria was compelled and trapped and the resentment of that has never fully gone away, but she can't help but be sympathetic to Amalia who did not mean to be the one who trapped her and is trying hard to make it right.
The different attitudes to magic shown in this novel are very interesting, those in Raverra viewing magic and those who can use it as dangerous, a threat to be controlled and turned against their enemies, in Vaskandar magic users are a privileged ruling class. It's this clash of cultures that sparks friction between the two nations.
Of course, diplomatic negotiation means Amalia has to deal with the long-lived magic users, the Witch Lords, who rule the lands in Vaskandar, but they are not a cohesive body and the rules are different depending on whose territory you are in. Where Amalia goes, Zaria must follow, which is a cross between bringing a slave to a freedland and a nuclear weapon to a peace negotiation.
In some fantasy the villains and heroes are obvious from the outset, but Caruso paints with shades of grey. The Witch Lords should be the obvious enemies and some of them definitely are, although the worst of these also wants a close relationship with Amalia even as he wants war with her people. Some of the Witch Lords, while constrained by their customs and the political situation with Amalia, are definitely not bad, their treatment of those born with magic is entirely more human than that of Amalia's people. On the other hand, some of the politicians of Raverra have no interest in the human cost of their policies and actively work against Amalia's dual aims of peace and social reform. Having said that it turns out that some of the magical 'gifts' are not given coincidently, power can be used in different ways and certain of the most concerning of magic use has to be deliberately learnt, by one inclined to do others harm.
One area of the novel that I found interesting was that Amalia only starts to care about the plight of the Mages when it directly affects her life, although this arguably is also that she was only becoming politically aware of issues at this time due to her age. It is however easy, in reality and fantasy, to ignore the plight of a minority when we do not know anyone in that minority.
This is echoed when Amalia must make a decision of what direction to divert the power of the Witch Lords magic, towards multiple innocent people or towards less people, but one of whom she knows well.
This is a really engaging and easy to read novel that on reflection gives you much food for thought.
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