Fantasy with Ballgowns and Explosions: The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

It is difficult, sometimes, to speak about something that you loved wholeheartedly. To set out to review a work that carries you away and lifts you out of yourself with delight is to set out to reveal the vulnerability of your joy—and that can be a frightening thing.

I really liked Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage. But I loved its sequel, The Defiant Heir: wholeheartedly and without reservation, so much that I doubt my ability to be fair about it. In The Tethered Mage, the reader was introduced to the world—the Venetian-esque empire of Raverra, with its enemies—and to characters who were only beginning to discover their hidden depths. In The Defiant Heir, Amalia Cornaro is no longer a young woman unsure of her ability to step up to the mark, far more confident of her skill with scholarship than politics; and the fire warlock Zaira—linked to Amalia against her will in The Tethered Mage and conscripted into the magical arm of Raverra’s military, the Falcons—is no longer quite so unwilling or unable to trust anyone. I’m a sucker for stories about friendship, and The Defiant Heir centres around (among other things) the complicated friendship between Zaira and Amalia, and between Zaira and her maybe-lover, a fellow Falcon called Terika.

Well, there’s also Amalia’s conflict between her feelings for Falcon officer Marcello, her friend, and the fact that she can’t afford not to think of the political value of her potential marriage alliances—especially when several of the Witch Lords that rule Raverra’s powerful, magical neighbour Vaskandar are threatening to invade Raverra and its allies. One of the other Witch Lords, Kathe the Crow Lord, offers to court Amalia as part of a political manoeuvre that could benefit them both, and duty means Amalia can’t very well refuse.

Rumours of Vaskandrian preparations for war—and Amalia’s personal knowledge of Ruven, the son of a Witch Lord of Vaskandar, and his twisted ambitions—see Amalia, Zaira, Marcello and his Falcon-artificer sister, and Terika and her Falconer, sent to the Raverran client state Callamorne, on the border with Vaskandar, to shore up both morale and defences. Amalia is related to the Callamornish royal house, and she’s there to add her skills in diplomacy—and the threat of Zaira’s destructive fire magic—to the balance. But the Falcons have a traitor in their ranks. When an ambush sees Terika carried off into Vaskandrian territory, Amalia and Zaira try to pursue. But they find they’ve bitten off a bit more than they were expecting. In order to rescue Terika and thwart the full magical might of Vaskandar, Amalia must accept Kathe’s invitation to the Vaskandrian Conclave, where the question of war with Raverra will be decided—and she must intrigue as cleverly and as cunningly as it is in her power to do, and make hard choices, if she’s going to succeed.

There’s a subset of fantasy that I tend to classify as “ballgowns, swords, intrigue and explosions.” Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City and The Bone Palace were my previous exemplars of this subset, but now I can add The Tethered Mage and The Defiant Heir to the list of outstanding examples. In addition to ballgowns and swords, The Defiant Heir includes among its attractions extremely creepy sorcerers, volcanoes that may be magically induced to erupt, and magically (as well as politically) charged negotiations.

Caruso’s characterisation is a delight: all her characters have distinct voices and come across as whole people with needs and desires and narrative arcs of their own—something that’s not always guaranteed in a novel written in the first-person perspective. The narrator, Amalia, has a sense of humour that’s just dry enough to leaven The Defiant Heir‘s tenser moments, and her humour has a counterpoint in Zaira’s outspoken crudity and sharper tongue. The growing friendship between them is excellently depicted, as is Amalia’s growing acceptance of the costs of her responsibilities, and Zaira’s hard-won choice to pick people to be loyal to, even at the cost of some of her freedom. The relationship between Zaira and Terika is elegantly characterised, as is the mistrust-laden flirting between Amalia and Kathe—and the friendship between Amalia and Marcello.

This is a fast, tight, brilliantly entertaining book, atmospheric and full of tension and intrigue. I adored it.

The Defiant Heir is available from Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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