The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

The Unbound Empire Cover (WoW)

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 25 April 2019)

Series: Swords and Fire – Book 3

Length: 508 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the fast-rising authors of fantasy fiction, Melissa Caruso, brings her outstanding debut series to an end with the third book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Unbound Empire.

It is always a bittersweet moment when a great book series comes to an end. For the last two years, the Swords and Fire trilogy has been one of my favourite new fantasy series due to its excellent combination of characters, story, intrigue, fantasy elements and world building. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, The Tethered Mage, and I felt that Caruso did an excellent job following this up with The Defiant Heir, which made my Top Ten Reads For 2018 list and my Top Ten Books I Loved with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads list. As a result, I have been eagerly waiting for The Unbound Empire for the last year, and it even featured in my very first Waiting on Wednesday post.

The Swords and Fire series is set on the continent of Eruvia, which is made up of two great nations, the Serene Empire of Raverra and the loosely collected states of Vaskandar. The Serene Empire is the home of our protagonists, and is a land where magic is controlled by the government, led by the Doge and the Council of Nine. All mages who are identified as having enough power are conscripted into the army as a Falcon. Each Falcon is bound to a non-magical handler, a Falconer, who is entrusted to control and protect their Falcon. One such Falconer is Lady Amalia Cornaro, heir to one of the most powerful families in Raverra and future member of the Council of Nine. While the nobility is usually forbidden from becoming Falconers, desperate circumstances forced Amalia to be bound to the powerful and rebellious fire warlock Zaira.

Vaskandar, on the other hand, is a far wilder nation, ruled by the Witch Lords, magicians whose powerful vivomancy literally flows through their land, making them part of everyone and everything in their domain. War is always looming between these two nations, and while Vaskandar as a nation has decided to remain out of the most recent conflict, nothing can stop an individual Witch Lord from attacking. The cruel and ambitious Witch Lord Ruven, the Skinwitch, has long wanted to conquer and rule over The Serene Empire. His most recent ambitions have been stymied by the combined actions of Amalia and Zaira, who managed to stop his plan to unleash a destructive volcano, although it came at great cost to Amalia.

However, Ruven is far from done and is determined to gain new land, either in the Serene Empire or in the domains of the other Witch Lords. Launching a series of attacks against the Empire’s capital, Raverra, as well as several outlying holdings, with a range of horrifying strategies, Ruven is able to cause significant damage. But while he launches his attacks, he is also trying to recruit Amalia to his cause by any means necessary, as her unique heritage gives her the ability to usurp the domains of other Witch Lords. As Amalia and Zaira race to counter Ruven’s actions, Amalia finds herself once again torn between love, duty and friendship, as the responsibilities of her office clash with the friendships she has formed. As Amalia struggles to maintain her humanity in the heat of war, Ruven’s greatest cruelty might be the thing that finally breaks her and leads to the fall of the Serene Empire.

Caruso once again knocks it out of the park with The Unbound Empire, creating a satisfying conclusion to her series that still contains her trademark storytelling ability and character work. The final book in the Swords and Fire trilogy does a great job utilising the previous entries of the series and also attempts to tie up all of the existing loose storylines and plot points. The Unbound Empire is filled with some really emotional storylines, a number of powerful magical action sequences and several surprising plot developments. The end result is another five-star book from Caruso that I powered through in quite a short period.

At the heart of this book lies the series’ main two characters, the narrator and point-of-view character, Amalia, and the fire warlock Zaira. The challenging and evolving relationship between the initially sheltered Falconer and the rebellious and infinitely destructive Falcon has always been a major part of this series. While the two characters have been establishing a better relationship with each book, it was great to see the two of them becoming even closer in this book and helping each other deal with some major issues. I also liked how both characters’ stories come full circle in this book, as Amalia becomes more and more like her mother, while Zaira finally confronts a number of her personal demons and for once starts to consider having a future. The author’s depiction of the doubt and guilt that Amalia is feeling after the events of the last book forced her to kill her cousin added some extra emotional depth to the story, and I liked the inclusion of such a realistic emotional reaction. The character arcs for the two main characters were incredible, and it was great to see how much they had evolved over the course of the trilogy.

Caruso has also developed a number of great side characters for this series, and she continues to expertly utilise them in this final book. The main two side characters of The Unbound Empire were Amalia’s love interests: Captain Marcello of the Serene Empire; and the Witch Lord Kathe, known as the Crow Lord. Throughout the course of the book, Amalia is caught between them; while she loves Marcello, her position makes a relationship impossible, and Kathe presents a more suitable match. Marcello’s storyline in this book is pretty significant, and there are some substantial and emotive changes to his character that really helped make The Unbound Empire extra compelling. I also really liked the deeper dive into Kathe’s personality and backstory, as well as the natural strengthening of the relationship between Amalia and Kathe. Thankfully the book’s love triangle aspect wasn’t too over-the-top or filled with insufferable toxic jealousy, as both the men understand the difficult position Amalia is in. The arc of Zaira’s love interest, Terika, is really sweet, and I liked how she continues to have a positive effect of Zaira’s personality. Other side characters, such as the Amelia’s powerful and unflappable mother; the surprisingly lethal Cornaro servant, Ciardha; and Marcello’s eccentric artificer sister, Istrella, all shine through in this book, and all of them add quite a lot to this book’s story.

No great fantasy story would be complete without a despicable antagonist threatening the heroes, and luckily this book has a truly evil and threatening villain. The Witch Lord Ruven is a powerful Skinwitch, a person with the ability to control and alter other creatures just by touching him. Not only is this power by itself pretty horrifying but Ruven uses it in some fairly novel and evil ways, unleashing all manner of horrors upon the protagonists. I thought that Ruven had some of the best magical powers in the entire series, and his abilities were really fun to see in this book. Caruso also tried to humanise the character in places throughout this book, which was a nice touch and added some new depth to the story, although he does mostly come off as utterly irredeemable. Overall, I feel that Ruven was an excellent villain and his antagonism really helped make this book and the series as a whole.

I have always loved the complex fantasy world and elements that the author came up with for this series. The various forms of magic and resulting rules that form the backbone of this book are very imaginative, and I loved how Caruso was able to utilise them in her story. There are some amazing new versions of the magic and fantasy elements from the previous two books included in The Unbound Empire, as well as some new locations to explore. While the world building is not as intense as the first two books in the trilogy, Caruso still offers some great new elements, and I had a lot of fun seeing these extra expansions to the universe. Hopefully Caruso will come back to this world at some point in the future, as I had a lot of fun there over the course of the series.

The Unbound Empire was another incredible piece of fantasy fiction from author Melissa Caruso that expertly wraps up her debut trilogy. This has got to be one of the best debut fantasy trilogies I have had the pleasure of reading, and it has been a lot of fun absorbing the excellent tales of magic, adventure and intrigue that Caruso has woven over the last two years. I have really loved the Swords and Fire trilogy, and while I am sad to see it go, I am excited to see where Caruso goes next as this author has amazing potential for the future. I highly recommend each and every book in the series and encourage you to get wrapped up in the magic and characters of this series if you have not had a chance to read it.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. This week participants get an Audio Freebie week, so I get to choose any audiobook topic that I want.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I love audiobooks, so I was very keen to participate in this topic.  Because of some recent long books that I have read and listened to, I have gotten very curious about the top ten longest audiobooks I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Therefore, I have decided to go back and list of all the audiobooks I have listened to and their run times to see which ones were the longest.  For consistency’s sake, I will use the run times as stated on either Audible or Amazon, and I will only use the versions and narrators that I listened to.  For example, I have only listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale and not the Stephen Fry versions, which are apparently longer, so I will therefore list the run times for the Jim Dale versions.

I am very curious to see what makes up my Top Ten List.  I have an idea of what will be at the top, but I am expecting quite a few Harry Potter books in the top ten.  Let us have a look:

1. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading – 45 hours and 48 minutes

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2. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, narrated by Nick Podehl – 42 hours and 55 minutes

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3. Magician by Raymond E. Feist, narrated by Peter Joyce – 36 hours and 14 minutes

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Technically two books combined together (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), but as I will always listen to them together, I am counting it as one book.

4. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, narrated by Roy Dotrice – 33 hours and 45 minutes

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5. Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurst, narrated by Tania Rodrigues – 32 hours and 1 minutes

Mistress of the Empire Cover

6. Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, narrated by Gerrard Doyle – 31 hours and 29 minutes

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7. Servant of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurst, narrated by Tania Rodrigues – 30 hours and 42 minutes

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8. Brisingr by Christopher Paolini, narrated by Gerrard Doyle – 29 hours and 34 minutes

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9. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, narrated by Nick Podehl – 27 hours and 55 minutes

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10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale – 27 hours and 2 minutes

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This was a very surprising result for me.  While I was expecting books such as The Way of Kings and The Wise Man’s Fear to make the cut, I really did think that Order of the Phoenix would be higher up on the list.  I was also very surprised that two books from Feist and Wurst’s The Empire Trilogy made the list, and I really did not think that Inheritance and Brisingr were that long.  Still, it’s a good result, which I have no doubt will change in the future, especially as some of the books I am keen to listen to, such as The Ember Blade (30 hours and 40 minutes long) would make it onto this list, knocking Order of the Phoenix off.  I am sure that with a different narrator or production company, some of these audiobooks would be longer or shorter; still, it was quite interesting to see.

As a bit of bonus material, and because I already had the run times listed, here are the next top ten books as an Honourable Mention.

Honourable Mentions:

11. Red Seas under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page – 25 hours and 34 minutes

12. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page – 23 hours and 43 minutes

13. Eldest by Christopher Paolini, narrated by Gerrard Doyle – 23 hours and 29 minutes

14. Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, narrated by Steven Pacey – 22 hours and 38 minutes

15. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, narrated by Steven Pacey – 22 hours and 15 minutes

16. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page – 21 hours and 59 minutes

17. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale – 21 hours and 36 minutes

18. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale – 21 hours and 12 minutes

19. Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, narrated by Mark Meadows – 19 hours and 29 minutes

20. Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, narrated by Christian Rodska – 19 hours

So that is where some of the other Harry Potters are.  With all 20 books being fantasy, I think it is obvious that I need to branch out into some longer books from other genres in order to break up this fantasy monopoly.  While I have reviewed some of the books on this list, I am planning to get to the rest at some point in the future.  However, I think most of those require a re-listen before I am able to do proper review of them; now I just have to find the time to fit them into my reading schedule.  I was quite happy with the interesting result of this Top Ten Tuesday, and I will have to revisit this list at some point in the future.  Feel free to comment below about the longest audiobook you have ever listened to.

Magefall by Stephen Aryan

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Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 4 September 2018

 

In the aftermath of the devastating battlemage war, magic became mistrusted and feared by the common population of all the lands.  However, the mysterious Akosh managed to turn this mistrust into outright hatred, and her manipulations and minions led the populace to attack and destroy the Red Tower, the seat of all magical learning.  While the tower was destroyed, many of its students and teachers managed to escape and the outcast mages must now find a new path for their magic and abilities.

While the powerful and disturbed former instructor of the Red Tower, Garvey, leads several of his former students on a murderous rampage through the countryside, three other refugees from the Red Tower attempt to change the public perception of magic.  Wren and Danoph have started their own community of mages in the abandoned fringes of Shael, and attempt to protect the local villages from a murderous band of bandits.  At the same time, their friend Tianne returns home to Zecorria in order to take advantage of the regent’s amnesty for mages.  But as she begins to work in an official capacity for the regent, she is forced to become more involved in his despotic policies.

Elsewhere, Akosh continues to manipulate events across the lands, attempting to gain even more influence and control.  However, her actions have not gone unnoticed, and several individuals are rallying to counter her bid for power.  The new head of the Guardians, Tammy, moves to shatter Akosh’s influence in the country of Shael, but how far will she go to win this fight, and what will the consequences be?  Old friends Balfruss and Vargus attempt to counter both Garvey and Akosh, while Munroe, the most powerful mage in existence, embarks on deadly rampage to find Akosh and get her revenge.  But Akosh is far more powerful than anyone believes possible, and what will happen when a mage goes up against a god?

Magefall is an intriguing and enjoyable book from talented fantasy author Stephen Aryan and one that I had a lot of fun reading.  Magefall is the second book in Aryan’s Age of Dread trilogy, which followed on from his initial The Age of Darkness trilogy.  I have to admit that I have not had a chance to read any of Aryan’s previous books before, and as a result, I had a bit of a harder time getting into this story initially, due to the author’s assumption of his readers’ knowledge of the four previous books’ established plot and lore.  While I was eventually given a clearer picture of some of the previous events, the initial confusion and uncertainty when it came to certain plot points did slightly colour my assessment of this book.  As a result, I have knocked my rating down to four stars, rather than the four and a half stars I probably would have given to it if I were more familiar with the previous books in this universe.  That being said, Magefall is still an amazing piece of fantasy fiction that I really enjoyed, and I am intending to check out some of Aryan’s previous novels at a later date.

The book is made up of a series of semi-separated storylines that take place across various locations in Aryan’s fantasy landscape.  Each of the storylines is very exciting and incredibly captivating, resulting in some great moments of action and intrigue.  I rather enjoyed the story that focused on the former student Wren as she starts her own community of mages out in the wilderness, as it contained a great examination of a responsible group of mages who actually wanted to protect and help the people around them.  Their battles against a merciless group of bandits are particularly intriguing, especially as the bandits are actually able to cause the very powerful young mages significant issues and problems.  The various intrigue based storylines that highlighted the manipulative and wide-reaching schemes of the villainess Akosh are also done really well, and some of the best parts of the book showcase the various moves and countermoves as the protagonists seek to thwart Akosh and her goals.  There is not a single dull moment during this entire book as every single one of these fantastic stories come together in an amazing overall narrative.

One of the other things that I also really enjoyed about Aryan’s latest book is the devastating magical sequences that take place throughout the various storylines.  The magical characters engage in a number of high-octane battles in a variety of creative scenarios throughout the book.  Not only do these characters engage in battles with normal non-magical people but several mages fight each other in sequences that see buildings and scenery blown apart around them.  It is great to see the tactics of some of the non-magic characters, as well as the difference in power levels between the former students and the really powerful mages who previously taught them.  The highlight of the book has to be the fight between the uber-powerful mage Munroe and Akosh, as the two engage in an all-out power brawl.  This is magical action at its very best, and readers will have a terrific time enjoying all the carnage.

Magefall is an excellent piece of fantasy fiction from a rising star in the genre.  Making full use of his multiple-storyline format, Aryan has combined a series of enjoyable, fast-paced and electrifying adventures with some outstanding uses of magic.  While I would strongly advise reading some of the previous books in this universe before attempting to dive into Magefall, this is still a fun book to read and it serves as a mostly great introduction to this intriguing series.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication date – 5 June 2018

 

Prepare yourself for dark magic and a powerfully inventive adventure in The Traitor God, one of 2018’s best fantasy debuts from exciting new author Cameron Johnston.

Ten years ago, reviled mind-bending magician Edrin Walker fled his home city of Setharis with demons biting at his heels.  On that night, a god died, his mentor disappeared and Edrin’s memories of the events surrounding his exile were erased from his mind.  All Edrin remembers is that he made a deal with somebody extremely powerful.  In exchange for him leaving the city, this mysterious figure guaranteed the safety and long life of his closest friends.

Edrin has spent the last 10 years wandering the wilderness, living day to day and evading the creatures hunting him.  Content with his decision and new life, his exile ends the moment he witnesses the death of his best friend, Lynas.  In one terrible night, Lynas was brutally murdered and skinned alive, and Edrin saw every minute of it through their powerful mental link.  Now, with nothing left to lose, Edrin will return home, his only intention to burn everyone and everything until he finds the person responsible for his friend’s death.

However, returning to Setharis is a dangerous proposition.  Not only is he still being hunted by demons, but the Arcanum, Setharis’s governing body of magicians, will kill him the moment they find out he is still alive.  Beyond caring, Edrin will risk everything to get revenge, and woe betide any man, magician, demon or god who gets in his way.

This is an extraordinary first novel from Johnston, who has produced a stylish and highly addictive sword and sorcery fantasy adventure with a morally corrupt protagonist, a great new fantasy setting and a huge number of magical battle sequences.

The Traitor God contains an impressive dark fantasy action story that effortlessly captures the reader’s imagination and attention and drags them through every page of the book.  What starts as a revenge investigation and rampage turns into a fight for the future of an entire city, as mysterious forces are unleashed.  The story is told solely from the perspective of the protagonist, Edrin, and as a result it has been noticeably infected with his dark humour and well-developed scepticism.  The familiar storyline of a hero returning home and finding that everything has changed works well within The Traitor God.  Readers will enjoy watching the powerful magician manipulate the new generation of criminals and bystanders who are unfamiliar with what he can do.  While the eventual revelation of who is responsible for the murder is a tad predictable, the investigation getting there is amazing, and fans will enjoy seeing the protagonist confront his enemies.  The scope of the villain’s evil plot is quite impressive and results in some massive scenes towards the end of the book.  I really enjoyed the cunningness and ingenuity of the protagonist and had fun watching him come up with clever solutions to the difficult and unique problems he encounters.  There is one amazing scene towards the end of the book when his plan to finish off a powerful antagonist is slowly revealed to the reader.  The reveal of the protagonist’s master plan, which is kept hidden from the reader due to magical plot elements, is done perfectly within this scene, and the audience will enjoy the clever ideas and dark humour used within.

The vast majority of the plot of Johnston’s book is set within the city of Setharis, which is controlled by an army of powerful magicians.  The city is a great setting for this dark fantasy novel as the protagonist is forced to conduct his investigation through its corrupt and crime-ridden streets.  It is clear that Johnston has spent significant time creating Setharis, and Edrin explores vast swathes of it during his adventures.  The exploration of the Arcanum is particularly intriguing, and readers will be shown the noticeable differences between the sanctuary of magicians and the dwellings where the city’s poor live.  Edrin’s observations about the inequalities and corruption of the Arcanum are unique among the book’s magicians.  This allows Johnston to show off the arrogance of the other magicians, which plays into the plot while at the same time endearing Edrin to the reader.  The setting of Setharis is an amazing part of this novel, and readers will look forward to returning to it in Johnston’s future works.

One of the best parts of The Traitor God is the sheer amount of exceptional magical and fantasy elements that have been packed into it by the author.  Edrin has unique magical mind powers that allow him to control people he encounters, and these are surprisingly dark powers for a fantasy protagonist to have.  These powers are intriguing, as they are known and feared throughout Johnston’s fantasy world, and Edrin suffers significant discrimination as a result.  The scenes where Edrin uses his mind-bending abilities are well presented by Johnston, as he successfully endeavours to show the effect Edrin’s power has on the other character’s minds.

The other magicians that feature in The Traitor God also have magical powers that catch the reader’s imagination when they are presented in the book.  The book features magicians with powers to nullify the magic of other magicians, sniffers who can smell and identify magicians from a distance, magicians who use body enhancement magic to become epic soldiers, and one extremely skilled hydromancer.  Johnston has also created some fascinating rules and abilities that affect all of the magicians within the book, including Edrin, and result in some wonderful story elements.  A great example of this revolves around the rule that magic permeates every cell of a magician’s body and leaks out of them into items like their clothing or bedding.  Johnston uses this fact to great effect throughout the story, as his protagonist is constantly forced to find constructive ways to avoid enemies who can detect his magic.  The author has also created memorable descriptions of the way that magicians are forced to access their magical power.  Johnston establishes that magicians within The Traitor God have to be careful about the magic they draw into themselves, lest they burn themselves out or go mad with power.  There are several scenes where Edrin is forced to draw large amounts of magic into himself to face powerful opponents or save the lives of his friends, and the resultant internal battles to retain control and his sanity are a fantastic part of the narrative.

While Johnston goes into incredible detail about the rules and roles of the magicians of Setharis, he has also included some alternative magical users who do not follow the same rules.  The comparison between these two different groups of magic users is quite distinctive, and scenes where they come into conflict with each other are quite destructive and highly enjoyable.  Johnston has made sure to include a number of unique demonic creatures the hunt and harry the protagonist.  These creatures are quite distinctive, and Johnston cleverly ties their hunting ability into his rules about magical scents and detection.  The most memorable magical creature within the book is also the largest, and results in some significant, fast-paced and explosive scenes throughout the book.  Overall, the electrifying and distinctive magical and fantasy elements within The Traitor God are one of the book’s most intriguing characteristics and highlight just how imaginative and creative Johnston is.

There are a tremendous number of action-filled sequences throughout the book as the main character and his allies fight criminals, demons, magicians and gods.  As a result, The Traitor God will appeal to wide range of readers eager to get their latest dose of intense fantasy action.  There are brawls, chases, complex magical duels, fights with monstrous foes, large-scale magical warfare within a city, and even a fight between two gigantic magical constructs.  Various elements that Johnston sets up when describing the city of Setharis or the magical abilities and rules of his magician characters often come into play during these scenes, and the author does a great job of winding his own lore into these fantastic sequences.  Those drawn to magical and fantasy action and battles will find all their needs and more are met within this book.

In his debut book, Cameron Johnston has shown that he is author with an immense and powerful imagination and the ability to skilfully transcribe his ideas into a powerful narrative.  The Traitor God is a fantastic piece of dark fantasy, with some incredibly thrilling action and adventure subplots.  This book is a highly recommended read, and Johnston is an author that fantasy fans will need to keep an eye on.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars