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24 April 2018

Review- The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire 2)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 26 April 2018
PB, 515pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Defiant Heir.

This is Book 2 in the series, following from The Tethered Mage. Refreshingly, it's very accessible so that even if you haven't read the book, you'll quickly be up to speed and able to enjoy this one. But as is the way with series it's much more fun if you start from the beginning so, in case this review influences you to follow the story, I'll keep it as spoiler-light for Book 1 as I can.

The Defiant Heir is set in  a very well imagined world which is perhaps 17th-18th century in development (flintlocks, gunpowder, carriages) but also has magic (Witch Lords, mages) and its own form of technology (referred to here as "artifice"). It's a diverse society with women and men taking equal roles and no qualms about same sex relationships.

Lady Amalia Corner, the first-person narrator here, is a smart operator, a bookworm-turned-spy-turned-military-specialist with a place at the heart of the Serene Empire. (In nomenclature and (very loosely) setting there is a whiff of renaissance Venice, with a Doge, Italianate titles ("La Contessa") and lashings of political intrigue). Amalia's also a Falconer for the Imperial forces - handler to Zaira, a woman who's a talented warlock but magically bound to obey Amalia. The relationship between the two forms the bedrock of this book, with Caruso tackling head on the ethical and personal issues arising from such a form of control. The women like each other and get on increasingly well, but their relationship naturally has constraints. So does Amalia's romantic interest in a fellow soldier, Marcello. They clearly fancy each other rotten, but Amalia lives in a world of duty and service which she puts first, and a relationship with Marcello doesn't fit with that.

The relationships were where I really noticed Caruso's cleverness and subversion of what you might expect from fantasy. The situation of Zaira and her fellow mages is odious and oppressive, but no-one sets out to overthrow the Empire simply to root it out. Rather, Amalia has a plan for reform but she is pursuing it by the political means within her power. She needs to build alliances and win support. And while her personal situation is also perhaps a mess, nor does Amalia fling everything overboard and elope with Marcello. Lurking in the background is the threatening Northern empire of Vaskandar whose Witch Lords are greatly to be feared. The Serene Empire is a far from perfect place, but it's a the better place of the two (even if we gradually learn that Vaskandar also has its complexities, and that some parts of it are at least less worse than others - the Witch Lords are as well drawn and varied as anyone in this book, definitely not caricature villains).

The book is then all about compromises - in personal lives, in politics and statecraft, in war (at one point Amalia has to take a heartbreaking decision, accepting one evil to avert a greater one. That decision will have its cost). It's about smart, competent people working together to overcome enormous difficulties. Some of those people are more to be trusted than others. Some have their own agendas. Almost all are willing to make sacrifices - of themselves, or of others. Bad things happen, and the prospect of war hangs over all. But in the focus on what can be done, on cooperation, on achieving things, it's "bright" rather than "dark".

It's also a dashing, compelling and exciting story, blending magic, assassination, conspiracy and diplomacy. The Empire is threatened both by war from the North and by a danger closer to hand. Aiming to resolve both, Amalia and Zaira travel to the borderlands. It may be possible to ally with certain of the Witch Lords, but what will they want in return? What might the consequences of that be? Amalia is playing a dangerous game and she doesn't know all the rules.

I'll make no bones about it, I loved this book. It's fantasy through and through, but avoids - indeed, subverts - the kind of dark "fantasyness" that I find off-putting, with a fresh take on its societies (even the Witch Lords, while a threat, aren't unthinking hordes of evil - there is a logic to their expansionism) and its characters (part of the story concerns a rescue mission, but some of the rescuees have qualms about being rescued, for very understandable reasons).

Amalia and Zaira in particular are fun to spend time with, full of life, complex and interesting.

So glad I read this one - even if I ended up awake till 1am to finish it. What else is coffee for?

For a preview excerpt of The Defiant Heir see here.

For more about the book and to order from the publisher see here.

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