I am going to Europe next week, so I felt like reading about pseudo-fantasy Venice as I was packing. In order to scratch that itch, I am back with a review for the second book in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series, The Defiant Heir. Also, while we are on the subject – I realized in book two that the reason the series is called “Swords and Fire” is that it’s about trying to accomplish things while using neither. It is an interesting choice for the series title, and it makes me slightly dubious that the characters will be about to accomplish their goals by just talking.
I reviewed the first book in this series here and, despite some mixed feelings, came out feeling positively. I didn’t think I was that invested in the story of The Tethered Mage, but it turns out that Caruso sunk her talons into me deeper than I knew (this is a falcon pun that makes sense if you read the first book, which you should, so you can see how funny I am). My curiosity was piqued, so I jumped into The Defiant Heir and found that Caruso brought her A-game.
At the end of the first book, our lead (Amalia) had foiled a dastardly plot, brought a rogue city state back into the empire, fallen in love with someone beneath her station, and built up a friendship with her hot-headed falcon partner. The awful antagonist from book one, the witchlord prince Ruven, is still running around unchecked and has a new plot that involves enticing his country to go to war against Amalia’s. In order to sabotage Ruven, Amalia enters a political courtship with another witchlord, Kathe, and she travels to the witchlord realm to try persuade them to not go to war. The plot is awesome, and I felt myself much more invested in the story and its characters than I was in book one. The pacing of The Defiant Heir is excellent, with the story constantly pulls you back in for one more chapter. I found myself up reading way later than I should multiple nights until I finished it, a surefire sign of a great book. While I didn’t have major issues with the characters in the first book, the entire cast feels more complex, likable, and relatable than they did previously. Amalia and her falcon Zaira in particular were a lot more interesting and I loved spending time in Amalia’s head as she made hard choices.
One of core issues I had with The Tethered Mage is its setup and first chapters felt a little far fetched. The Defiant Heir addresses this issue in a number of ways. First, because the book picks up an already moving plot, it doesn’t suffer from the ramp up period that The Tethered Mage did. Second, Amalia feels like a much more flawed and believable character, which helps her power through some truly Mary Sue moments. I am not exaggerating when I say you find out that Amalia is an UBER-princess in this book. It is casually mentioned that she is basically related to every single monarch in every single country in this book – which sounds like a recipe for a terrible lead. However, Caruso makes it work spectacularly because of her emphasis on a key theme in the series – the price of power.
An idea that is present in both books, but much more so in the second, is the idea that with power comes responsibility. As I mentioned, Amalia is a princess to three different countries – but what is expected of royalty in each of those places is vastly different. In one, it guarantees the right to rule, in another it gives you certain advantages as you start your career but not much else, and in the last royal blood is completely meaningless. Despite these differences, there is one key similarity that runs through all the countries – with power comes the burden of making hard choices. This is a theme that has been around for eons, but I honestly have not seen many people who handle it as well as Amalia. Amalia shatters her Mary Sue status by having to make hard choices that have no good answers. These choices have terrible fallout and Caruso does not shield her from the consequences of her decisions. It creates a compelling read about the price of power and makes me genuinely sympathetic to the aristocrats of old – a group of people that the fantasy genre has generally painted in a negative light. This is my second favorite part of this book, and my most favorite is indirectly related to this theme.
I cannot believe I am saying this, but my absolute favorite part of The Defiant Heir is the love triangle. I almost always hate love triangles, but Caruso avoids every single pitfall I usually hate about them. First, both the love interests are wonderful and you will adore them both. The first is Marcello, the soldier love interest from the first book, and the second is the witchlord Kathe who Amalia is courting for political gain. Second, the two men represent marriage for love and marriage for obligation, and Caruso gives equal weight to both. So many books you read with this sort of scenario feel like you are just waiting for the obligation guy to die or leave so that “true love can win in the end”. It is so damn refreshing to see someone treat the idea of a royal needing to marry for the good of the realm as a positive thing. Again, this comes back to the theme of “price of power” – Amalia lives a very pampered aristocratic life and there is a cost to that. Caruso refuses to give Amalia loop holes to let her have her cake and eat it to. This is what elevates The Defiant Heir over so many other books I have read recently. Each choice feels like it has weight and it pulls you into the story. Also, this is just my personal opinion, but I am TEAM KATHE ALL THE WAY. Other members of The Quill to Live are incorrectly on Team Marcello though, so we support both competitors.
I have a ton of other things I want to praise The Defiant Heir for, like the world building and culture, but I think at this point you get that this is a series worth your time. In particular, The Defiant Heir takes everything that was good about its predecessor and ads depth and weight to make it a more serious and compelling read. There was nothing lukewarm about my feelings for this book and I cannot wait for the next installment of Swords and Fire. Go pick up a copy and join me on Team Kathe after you realize his clear superiority.
Rating: The Defiant Heir – 9.0/10