(2019) Melissa Caruso, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 508pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51064-4
The Unbound Empireis the third in Mellissa Caruso’s 'Swords and Fire' series, which started with The Tethered Mage that continued with The Defiant Heir. It is a classic swords and sorcery fantasy style, but with the twist that magic users are required to be partnered with a non-magical Falconer, their magic deactivated unless their falconer allows. This novel can’t really be read without the context of the previous volumes.
Lady Amalia Conaro is the heir to an estate and position in the ruling council of Raverra and also, accidentally, a Falconer for a volatile fire Mage, Zaira. Over the previous novels she has been coming to terms with her responsibility as an heir, but also learning to use the power that comes with it.
Amalia is keen to push through a controversial new law to give rights to the mage born, to release them from their intensely restrictive lives which tears family apart. Mage-born children are taken from their parents and forced to live at the capital and serve their nation, whether their skills are useful or not. Amalia is keen to see this change, but she has strong political opposition from those that feel the Mages are too dangerous not to be controlled and their armies would be weaken by the lack when they are under attack from the mage controlled neighboring lands.
This action-packed novel is one of political intrigue and human rights as well war and violence. The underlying themes of acceptance of those who are different in society, the mage born acting as a fantasy analogue for other real-world minorities, the use of a female protagonist accompanied by other primarily female supporting figures gives a refreshing change from where the genre has been ten or twenty years ago, although it is more common now.
Amalia also receives news that the Skin-Witch Ruven, who rules an area of Vaskandar, intends to attack the surrounding land, build up his power and inevitably turn his attention to Raverra. However, her informant dies before he can give her the details so Amalia must face Ruven, who was previously courting her, to discover his plan and protect her people.
Despite Ruven being physically threatening and having huge personal power, Amalia’s treatment of him is to always believe that he has an innate value as a human being and that she is only willing to harm him when he is attacking those she cares about. As the reader sees Ruven through Amalia’s eyes we are drawn in to almost have sympathy for him, despite the horrific choices that he makes. This blurring of “good” and “evil” avoids the binary perspective which is frequently found in the genre and allows a more realistic feeling to the world. It also avoids reinforcing the real-world attitude that those from other countries, with different cultures to our own are somehow evil, rather than just different.
Carruso leads the reader into emotional rapport with the characters, Amalia is torn between the protection of her country and her desire to free the mage-born, her love for the falconer, Captain Marcello and her affection for the Witch-Lord Kathe who is courting her. This conflict of desires shows Amalia as a flawed person, often choosing her heart over her head, which ultimately makes her more believable as a character and one the reader can relate to.
In all it is a wonderful tale, which has a fast pace without losing character empathy and a really enjoyable read which I absolutely recommend
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