The Obsidian Tower – A Tall Success

50147675._sx0_sy0_The Obsidian Tower, by Melissa Caruso, is the first in a new spinoff series set in the Tethered Mage world. Normally, I am not one for spinoff series; I enjoy jumping into new worlds rather than returning to ones I know for what is often a B-list version of the original series I liked. However, in Caruso’s instance, I made an exception as she continued to expand the scope of her world and story from the original series and left a lot of room for exploration. In addition, her writing quality has improved with each book she has put out, and I was curious to see if this trend continued. So I decided to dig into The Obsidian Tower, and am happy to say it is a delightful book filled with delicious mysteries.

If you are new to Melissa Caruso’s work I recommend you start with her first book The Tethered Mage (reviewed here). But, if you just can’t wait to read The Obsidian Tower, it is a completely standalone series set sometime after Caruso’s initial series. Caruso’s world is one of rampant dangerous magic and antagonistic empires that love political cloak and dagger shenanigans. The protagonist of Obsidian is Ryx, a royal mage whose job is to guard the aforementioned obsidian tower that has been in her family for generations. No one knows what is inside it or what it does, but the family lore is quite clear on what her duties are – don’t let it be opened. Unsurprisingly, Ryx fails at this duty almost immediately at the start of the book, and the tower is breached. But what Ryx finds inside is confusing and puzzling, and sets off an exciting investigation as to what the purpose of the tower was and why was it sealed.

Caruso’s original series was primarily a political drama, with some romance splashed in on the side. The Obsidian Tower is a mystery book first, with a large side of political drama. I really enjoy this genre change-up and actually think that Caruso is a stronger mystery writer than she is a romance writer. The tower is a fun enigma, and I was very much invested in pulling apart its secrets. Caruso is very skillful in how she parcels out information, and the pacing of the book is excellent, constantly sitting at a low burn.

In addition, Ryx is an excellent protagonist who brings a lot to the table. For starters, she is a viviomancer – a magic-user whose power is directly entwined with the land her family controls. It is a unique and interesting magic that was used primarily by the antagonists in Caruso’s first series, and it is definitely fun seeing it used from the POV of the characters you are rooting for in Obsidian. Ryx has the added complication of her magic being “broken.” She had an accident while growing up, and it caused her magic to somehow go wrong. Now she is a magical Midas, siphoning the life energy out of anything near her and killing literally everything she touches. Caruso did a lot more with this premise than I was expecting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the story. Ryx essentially has to live like a combination of a cripple and leper – using specialized tools that she can’t break with her power and never coming near another human for fear of killing them. There is a nice exploration of what this does to her emotionally and I really enjoyed hearing a story from someone in this POV. A+ protagonist, sign me up for more.

However, I was less impressed with the supporting cast in Obsidian, especially compared to Caruso’s first series. The side characters consist of primarily three groups: 1) Ryx’s family members and servants, 2) envoys and ambassadors from various other political powers who are in her home for a summit, and 3) an independent group of mages from different countries who investigate magical disasters like a fantasy United Nations. There were a few interesting individuals from each of the three groups, but I found most of the supporting cast forgettable and wish they had more depth (like the large support cast in Caruso’s first series did). On the other hand, the worldbuilding and prose continue to improve with every book Caruso writes. Obsidian benefits massively from the groundwork that the previous series laid, but does a fantastic job expanding the maps and magic of the world. The prose is slightly better and I am constantly impressed by Caruso’s drive to improve and streamline her writing.

Overall, The Obsidian Tower is a great spinoff and fun for new and old fans of Caruso’s writing. The book is packed with fun mysteries and a highly original protagonist with a unique POV. The pacing and prose are good and I found almost nothing to complain about. The Quill to Live gives a warm recommendation that you check out The Obsidian Tower, and also Caruso’s previous books if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

Rating: The Obsidian Tower – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Defiant Heir – The Price Of Power

35921536I 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
-Andrew

The Tethered Mage – Restrained Fun

34219880I received a copy of The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, from Orbit in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This book was sold to me as wizards in Venice, which I honestly don’t think is quite right. Another reviewer I spoke to described it as “YA Lies of Locke Lamora”, which I think is closer to the truth. The Tethered Mage both over and under performed in certain areas, but overall was an enjoyable read. However, let’s first start with the plot.

The world of Eruvia has had a lasting peace under the guidance of a large empire based in the city of Raverra. The primary driver of this peace is that the empire controls the Falcons, powerful magic users that range in ability from warlocks that can control the elements to artificers who can build amazing magical machines. Due to the volatility and danger of the Falcon magical power- children who show marks of power (eyes that gain an extra colored ring) are press ganged into magical service for the empire. It is not as bad as it sounds, the Falcons live lives of opulence and comfort, but they are not free people and must come to terms with that fact. To control the Falcons, each magic user has a corresponding Falconer that can turn their magic on and off – which is where our story begins.

Our protagonist is Amalia, a fairly sheltered aristocrat girl with a penchant for adventure and a taste for artifice. The book begins with Amalia taking a trip to the ghettos of Raverra in search of a rare book. While on said trip, she comes across an extremely rare fire warlock, Zaira, losing control about to burn down the the city. Through a stroke of luck, Amalia is able to put a metaphorical collar on Zaira, and shut down her magic – but this raises problems of a different sort. Raverra is a highly political city, where several aristocratic families vie for power. As such, none of them are allowed to be tied to a Falcon, especially if they are as powerful as a fire warlock. This rockets Amalia to the center of a number of city intrigues, will she be able to navigate them and come out alive?

If the plot seems a little over the top, that’s because it is. The set up for the premise felt like it stretched my suspension of disbelief, but I am willing to give The Tethered Mage a pass due to how fun it is. It is largely a book of political intrigue, and the politics and twists are a blast. The world and culture of Eruvia revolve around powerful city states, and are very fleshed out. The cities all have their own unique feel, and it was fascinating to see how they all interplay. While the cities had a lot of depth, the characters (in particular the leads) left something to be desired. Amalia and Zaria are fairly one dimensional, though the supporting cast was surprisingly not. They did improve in depth as the story progressed (in particular as certain romances progressed), but the start of the book was rather rough. The magic was entertaining though, in particular the take on magical artifice. The various magical tools that the Falcons created added a lot of originality to the books and did a lot to distinguish The Tethered Mage in the current landscape. In addition, I enjoyed the twist on the enslaved magic user trope with collared mages living in opulence.

The Tethered Mage was not perfect, but it did enough right to earn a recommendation. The cast warmed on me while I wandered the captivating city states and I found myself very interested in what happens next. Amalia first halting steps are political intrigue are fun to watch, and I am excited to see how she comes into her own in Raverra’s complicated political landscape.

Rating: The Tethered Mage – 7.5/10