Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Unbound Empire - Melissa Caruso

The Unbound Empire is the third in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series. The saga up to now has included more than a few swords, and a fairly hefty amount of fire, both deployed to maximum effect in making me turn pages to find out what happens next. This conclusive chapter not only continues that tradition, but ramps it up to eleven. There’s plots and politics aplenty, as well as more than a little blood, all wrapped around some well-crafted characters, whose relationships, for good or ill, are at the scintillating heart of the story.

At the sharp end, this is a book about empires, about magic, and about the people who will wield either to make change happen. The Serene Empire is the central geography. A sprawling entity, it has both client states and a rather hungry next door neighbour. The Empire carries traces of the Italian renaissance about it – its head of state is a Doge, whose rule is advised by a council of nine landholders. The Empire is rich, and largely happy. Its citizens seem to toil away at trade and religion and martial activities, without too much in the way of feudal oppression. There’s definitely some problems here, but they are, by and large, the good guys.

One of the problems is how they feel about magic. Because this is a world where magic is something brought about by birth. Something any child could have. Some of the things one can do with magic – crafting defensive wards, or elaborate items – are relatively harmless. Other things some mages could do – such as setting large numbers of people on fire – are less so.

This has left the state to step in, to hoard those with magic, and to seek to control the. Each is tied to another, non-magical person, who decides if and when the mage’s powers are released, or shut down. This isn’t a perfect solution, but I’d say it makes sense in the world of the Empire. It’s also a great way for the book to explore inequality, and sacrifice. While some of the mages in the story feel they’ve lost their freedom,, others are accepting of the luxury they live in – constrained, but away from the streets. Others struggle with it, but recognise that they don’t have a better way t control small children with the ability to incinerate anyone who looks at them funny.

Ther’s a lot of politics here, as our protagonist, herself bound to a mage, struggles to give them more in the way of rights. It’s a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the power of the individual and the power of the state, and what responsibility each has to the other, and to their fellow citizens.  But it’s also a lavish backdrop for some thoroughly byzantine politics, as factions of the Empire all try to set its direction. To be fair, they’re all fairly united against a common enemy; but efforts to shape the Empire are often rather cutthroat from poisonings through political chicanery and, theoretically, up to extra-judicial assassinations. It’s a weltering whirligig of factions, and at the same time, a sprawling, thriving, heart-poundingly  alive place.

The same may not be said of its nearest neighbour, a federated autocracy run by mages. Those at the top of the heap are obscenely powerful mages. Those without magic also lack any power. Those at the top of the tree are only loosely confederated, each holding to their own slice of the pie, and always eyeing the others for a chance to seize more territory. But now they’re also looking for an excuse to get involved in the Empire, as a nice change of pace from trying to kill each other. Their demesnes feel more rural, closer to nature than the humming urbanity of the Empire, That said, the trickling streams and verdant forests are in stark contrast to the horrors of those Witch Lords who rule them, typically blending magical puissance with long-held grudges and little in the way of morality.
These are the two powers on the stage, and though they feel very different, they both feel equally alive, equally real.

The central duo for this book are the same as in those preceding: Amalia Cornaro is the noble heir to her family, linked to one of the Empire’s only fire warlocks in a magical accident, and, I think it’s fair to say, a woman who has been having a bit of a tough year so far. She’s linked to Zaira, a smart-mouthed woman from the bottom of society, whose main talent (aside from creating some great insults), is being able to generate vast amounts of fire on command – essentially making her a one-woman-army.

Full disclosure, I think they’re both great.

Amalia is a woman who has, to put it mildly, had a tough time recently. But as the text progresses, it’s possible to see the steel she has at her core, willing to pick up and run with tough decisions. Even if they’ll feel like they break her. Perhaps doubly so, then. But alongside that steel sits enough humanity to worry about what power and responsibility could turn her into; to observe the ruthless measures of the circles she’s moving into, and decide where she’ll draw the line, decide who she’ll want to be. That’s helped by the skein of compassion wrapped around the aforementioned steel core. Amalia isn’t a bad person, doesn’t want to be one, and is still willing to bear the costs that she knows are the price of action. But she feels for people. Maybe she doesn’t always understand them, maybe she’d rather be in a  book than at a party charming political opponents, but she wants the best for her Empire, for her friends, and even for herself. It’s easy to sympathise with a woman who feels out of her depth, and to cheer her on as she rises to the challenges = be they maniacal witch-lords, or her own romantic entanglements.

In her aims, she’s largely assisted by Zaira, who seems never to have met a person she actually liked. The fire warlock is working hard not to show too publically her thoughts on whether she wants to be a weapon for the Empire. She’s still hurt, still struggling to come to terms with herself, and watching her iron pragmatism clash with Amalia’s ideals is an outright joy. It helps that she is, honestly, really rather funny. There’s a person here, a conflicted, struggling person, who is willing to pitch in with Amalia to make things better, but isn’t doing so with any illusion of it all ending well.  Zaira brings a different energy, a different voice to the pairing – more jaded, but perhaps, behind the shell, more vulnerable.

Watching both women grow over the past two books has been fantastic, and I can safely say that the apotheosis of their relationship here carries all the emotional weight it deserves.

They’re surrounded by a wonderful gaggle of other characters, including the rather delightful Marcello, the straightforward Captain who helps guard the Empire’s mages from harm, and whose affection for Amalia is obvious, heartfelt and straightforward. Marcello gets some more time on the page in this book, and watching him change, seeing where his priorities lie, is by turns wonderful and painful. In part, that’s because social standing leaves his affection for Amalia in a bit of a troubled state; she’s also courting one of the Witch Lords, Kathe,  in what both know to be a political alliance. But the man Amalia is working with by necessity is also enigmatic, powerful, handsome, intriguing, and yes, witty. Of course he’s also dangerous, and probably has a hidden agenda. But the chemistry between Kathe and Amalia is undeniable – the page crackles with energy while tey’re together, and the attraction is at least as genuine as the danger. Negotiating this rather awkward triangle is one of the ways Amalia is trying to shape herself – to decide where what she wants and needs is taken up in what her country wants and needs. It’s powerfully written, compelling work.

And of course, there’s the villain. Ruven. Oh, hats off to the author on this one. Ruven is deeply, deeply creepy. A powerful witch-lord, he can change the skin of those he’s in contact with. That can involve magically healing their wounds, or paralysing with a touch, or making someone explode from the inside out. Ruven is…not a very nice person. That he thinks of everyone without magic as less than a person isn’t a great surprise, perhaps. But he also carries an affection, of sorts, for Amalia, seeing her intelligence, and a chance to drive his goals forward. Of course, he’s also a monster, with a penchant for atrocities. Ruven slithers insidiously on and off the page, and has a certain audacious charisma that makes his every appearance into compulsive reading – if only to see what horror he’ll unleash next, and which scheme will bear terrible fruit.

There are more, of course – an entirely delightful ensemble of new and old friends. And each steps up to the reader to introduce themselves, and even if we only see the for a few moments, they are seen, they are real. They may not be nice; there’s more than a fair share of tyrants and ruthless politicians here, between the blades and the fire. But they are people, and even if their goals are appalling, we can understand them. These are characters with heart and soul, whose presence gives the story a depth and heft, the weight that makes it something true.

I won’t, having gone on this long, go into the details of the story. It is, after all, the finale of a series. I wouldn’t want to spoil it. But if you’re here, you’re probably wondering how many of your questions will be answered. You may be wondering whether the end of the series can hold up to the high bar set by the previous books. You may be wondering if the story will still pick you up and make you soar, whilst wringing out all the emotions it can manage.

My answer is this: Yes, to all those things. This is a fantastic conclusion, a high-water mark in a series which was already really very good. It has interesting things to say about freedom, about oppression, about sacrifice and power. But it does those things with a verve that keeps the pages turning, by giving us characters we care about (one way or the other!), by making their struggles feel real, making their conflicts, emotional and otherwise, have real cost and real triumphs.
So, if you’re here wondering if you want to know how the story ends, I’m here to tell you that yes, you do.

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