By Jacob P. Torres
Find my spoiler-free review of The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso, book two in her Swords and Fire series.
Cover Description: “Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war.
But before an invasion can begin, the seventeen Witch Lords must convene at a rare gathering to decide a course of action. Lady Amalia Cornaro knows that this Conclave might be her only chance to smother the growing flames of war, and she is prepared to make any sacrifice if it means saving Raverra from destruction.
Amalia and her bound fire warlock, Zaira, must go behind enemy lines, using every ounce of wit and cunning they have, to sway Vaskandar from war.
If they fail, it will all come down to swords and fire.”
What is the book about?
This is the second book in the Swords and Fire series, and if you missed the first one you should definitely pick up that book first! This book follows the continuing adventures of Amalia Cornaro, heir to a seat of political power in the country of Raverra, and her mage, Zaira. If you’ve not read the first book this one is a little unforgiving of that fact. Zaira is a tethered mage, a Falcon of Raverra, in the world of Swords and Fires one empire Raverra has bound and sealed away the magic of any powered people in their country. They are paired with a Falconer who can release their powers in service to the empire.
Amalia and Zaira must travel to the border of Vaskander where mages are treated like royalty and the most powerful and savage among them run the kingdom as immortal witch lords. Amalia will look to the Crow Lord of Vaskander, Kathe, as a potential ally, courter, and possible romantic interest and stop the other witch lords that are vying for war and learn what it means to be a ruler on men and women.
What Did I Like About the Book?
As much as the persecuted magic users trope comes up, this world feels fresher and more unique than most fantasy novels, even when dealing with familiar themes and messages. The rules of magi seem well defined, even if we, as readers, must decipher them as we go along. The political drama in this book felt more polished and realistic compared to the previous one, and the setting felt more well defined and vivid. Excess worldbuilding is a common trait of second novels that build off well defined characters from the first one, but in this book it didn’t feel onerous.
Who was my Favorite Character?
Zaira by a mile. Amalia is fine, but at times feels like a coming of age hero stuck in someone else’s story. And that person’s story is Zaira. Zaira feels like the character with the most growth, and the most room for growth. While a lot of Amalia’s story is about her deciding whether she was going to live for herself or her nation, Zaira’s is a struggle to accept her new servitude to an empire and find happiness at the same time. She has all the psychological issues that you’d expect to see in someone born on the streets suddenly forced to kill for an empire that had never done anything for her. But she develops the best romantic relationship in the series with another Falcon, Terika, and you really feel her growth. She’s irreverent and willful in a world that doesn’t reward her for that, and captivating enough that I wish the series had been focused on her.
What Did I Not Like?
So, here’s my problem with magic in worlds like these. It makes so damn little sense. You have an entire nation of magic users so powerful they could kill cities and invent magical artifacts just as dangerous. And they’re all bound to the empire? HOW? Like how does a subset of humanity that can wipe out anyone who challenges them ever get into a position where they’re basically slaves. They are slaves. And that’s my big problem with this book. Zaira’s relationship with Amalia, which is supposed to be one of friendship, is always one where Amalia has the power in their relationship. Amalia’s basic royalty aside, with a word she can cut off Zaira’s magic which is often described as traumatic. Zaira, and those like her, are bound to service without choice. Sent to kill and maim and protect a nation that often treats them as tools. Caruso often addresses this head on, Amalia is actively trying to pass legislation that will give mages a choice, but not free them. Zaira often comments on the injustice of this situation, even worse for her since she was an adult when she was bound by the state. Ultimately, the problem is that the other nations in this world are painted as worse, which is problematic as fuck. But all of this often does make Amalia and Zaira’s relationship feel more emotional and often engaging.
I also do think hat Zaira and Amalia would make a better romantic pairing than either of Amalia’s suitors or Terika do for Amalia and Zaira respectively. So much of the focus of this book is on Amalia and Zaira that the people around them are not as well drawn as I’d like to see them. Clearly, the idea of a LGBTQA+ main character doesn’t bother Caruso, because Zaira and Terika are an explicit couple, but it sometimes feels like the original plan had been Amalia and Zaira. They definitely have a kind of Romeo and Juliet setup in my head.
This book may also be suggesting that Amalia has some magical shenanigans of her own, and that would definitely change the whole status quo of the series, but I really hope that isn’t the case, because it’s kind of refreshing to have the main protagonist have literally no magical or martial prowess, and just have to get by wholly on her wits.
I’m giving this 4.0 out of 5 cups of tea. This is a fun, enjoyable second installment in a series that is deftly written and largely well developed. Amalia and Zaira shine on the pages and feel fresh and unique for the genre. I’m not as fond of the canon relationships as I am the ones in my head, and that’s true here too. But the setup for book three is solid and I’m already looking forward to it. Kathe was the best and most engaging of the new characters, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of all of them.
|Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5 cups of tea. This is a fun, enjoyable second installment in a series that is deftly written and largely well developed.|
|+ Imaginative world that feels fresh and original.||– The state of magic in the world makes no god damn sense.|
|+ Zaira and Amalia are fun protagonists that have a genuine and heartfelt relationship that makes you want to know more about them.||– The empire just runs on slavery, and that colors Zaira’s relationship with almost all of the characters.|
|+ Kathe and the new cast of characters that are introduced in this book are fun, promising additions to the series.||– Amalia better not be getting some weird heritage super-powers because I’ll just be done.|