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.

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

The Defiant Heir Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit

Australian Publication Date – 24 April 2018

World Publication Date – 19 April 2018

 

Melissa Caruso follows up her extraordinary debut with another unmissable magical adventure.

On the continent of Eruvia lies the Serene Empire of Raverra.  Ruled by the Doge and the Council of Nine, the Empire’s power comes from its mages, the legendary Falcon Army.  When a mage comes to power in the lands of Raverra, they are conscripted as a Falcon and bound to a Falconer, a non-mage who can choose to unleash or bind their Falcon’s power with a word.

However, the Serene Empire is not the only great power on Eruvia.  To the north lies the mysterious nation of Vaskandar, controlled by a dangerous group of mages known as the Witch Lords.  Each Witch Lord is a powerful vivomancer whose magic grants them control over all living beings, such as animals, plants and even humans.  After years of peace, several of the Witch Lords desire additional territory and are preparing for war against the Serene Empire.  Large forces of soldiers and the Vaskandar’s dreaded chimeras amass on the border while covert attacks are undertaken against the Serene Empire’s most powerful Falcons.  But before the Vaskandar can formally declare war, all seventeen Witch Lords must meet in a conclave to agree to a course of action.

Lady Amalia Cornaro is heir to one of the oldest and most powerful families in all of the Serene Empire.  Formerly a sheltered academic, her life dramatically changed when she was accidently bonded to the rebellious teenage runway Zaira, a rare and destructive fire warlock and the most powerful mage in the Empire.  Despite a turbulent and resentful start to their relationship, Amalia and Zaira have come to a mutual understanding following their adventures in the city of Ardence.

As the tension between the two nations increases, Amalia and Zaira are sent as a military deterrent to the border province of Callamourne, ruled by Amalia’s grandmother.  Despite their presence, it quickly becomes apparent that forces are conspiring to bring the war to pass, especially with spies and assassins targeting Amalia and Zaira directly.  Determined to maintain the peace, Amalia knows that the only way to prevent the war is to infiltrate Vaskandar and attend the conclave on behalf of the Serene Empire.

Entering Vaskandar is a dangerous proposition.  Each Witch Lord has their own territory which they rule absolutely thanks to a mysterious bond to the land that allows them to control all living creatures within their boundaries.  In addition, Amalia already has powerful enemies among the Witch Lords.  The deadly Lady of Thorns holds a grudge against her entire family, and Amalia and Zaiara have experience with the machinations of the Skinwitch Ruven, whose plot could cause great destruction.

Their only hope to influence the conclave may come from the mysterious Crow Lord, who has taken an interest in Amalia.  However, the Crow Lord is playing his own game, and Amalia and Zaira are the perfect pawns.

Melissa Caruso is a relatively new fantasy author whose first book in the Swords and Fire series, The Tethered Mage, was released in late 2017.  The Defiant Heir is a direct sequel to this, and is set a few months after.

The Tethered Mage was one of the surprising hits of last year.  What started out as an intriguing sounding fantasy novel turned into one of the most exciting and memorable debuts of 2017 and proved near impossible to put down.  Caruso maintains this trend of excellent writing in The Defiant Heir, which continues to the provide the same great characters, fantasy adventure, worldbuilding and amazing story writing that made her first book such an irresistible read.

Caruso has chosen to expand her fantasy world in The Defiant Heir by detailing the nation of Vaskandar and focusing on its rulers, the Witch Lords.  While Vaskandar was mentioned and one of nation’s vivomancers, Prince Ruven, was a secondary antagonist, this area of her world wasn’t really explored in the first book.  For this book, Vaskandar is a major location and the protagonists spend a large portion of the story within its boundaries.  As a result, Caruso has produced a significant amount of fascinating lore about this country, especially when it comes to the Witch Lords.  The focus on the Witch Lords is particularly interesting as Caruso has developed complex backstories, powers, plots and motivations for many of them, which adds immensely to the story.  In addition, despite the fact that they all study the same branch of the magic, each of the Witch Lords has their own speciality and their appearance and abilities are different as a result.  This is especially noticeable during the numerous magical duels that occur throughout the book, where these differences allow for a wider variety of magical action.  It is also quite fun when the various Witch Lords use their powers to show off with memorable entrances and appearances during the opening scenes of the conclave.

Readers should also keep an eye out for Caruso’s focus on character development within The Defiant Heir for the two main characters.  Amalia’s growth is the most significant, as circumstances force her to become a more savvy and decisive political player, very much like her mother.  As a result, she is forced to make a number of tough decisions and struggles to maintain her morality in a harsh world where her options are becoming more and more limited.  There is also the growing realisation that her position may not allow her to have the personal life she wants, and this greatly affects her relationship with the dashing Captain Marcello, the main love interest of the first book.  This is a well done bit of character development that will draw the reader in emotionally, especially when it comes to Amalia’s most significant decision in the book.

Zaira’s development is more subtle, as she is not the book’s narrator, and is mostly a continuation of the transformation from inverted loner to team player that started in The Tethered Mage.  However, it is more realistic to see that this growth is a slow process, and her stubbornness is not automatically fixed in the span of one book.  The same could be said about the satisfying but gradual development in the relationship between the main characters.

Melissa Caruso once again shows why she is one of the brightest new stars in the fantasy fiction.  The Defiant Heir is an outstanding continuation of her first series that introduces significant and exiting lore to her already intriguing universe while providing significant development to her main characters.  If you haven’t already discovered the magic of Caruso’s Swords and Fire series, you are in for a serious treat.

My Rating:

Five Stars