It’s been a while since I hosted a question-and-answer session in this column. I may have forgotten how to interview people, but debut author Melissa Caruso more than compensated for any shortcomings of mine. Her first novel, The Tethered Mage, is out now from Orbit—and I really recommend it.
LB: Let’s start with the obvious question: Venice. It’s clear that Raverra (the setting for The Tethered Mage) is deeply inspired by early modern Venice, its city, and its empire. What brought your attention to Venice in the first place, and what makes it good inspiration for a fantasy setting?
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The Tethered Mage (Swords and Fire)
MC: My parents took me to Italy when I was 12, and Venice made a strong impression. It really is a magical, deeply atmospheric place. I knew I wanted to go back. And then as an adult, one day I saw some incredibly cheap plane fares and booked a spontaneous trip to Venice with my husband. I’d had no time to plan anything, so we did a lot of wandering around just soaking everything up. One day we got utterly lost, and spent all day walking for miles and miles through the less touristy parts of the city, not caring that we had no idea where we were. That was my favorite day, because we got to see the parts of Venice that aren’t polished up for tourists, where you can really feel the ghosts of the history of all the people who lived their daily lives in this empire that lasted a thousand years. I knew I had to write something set there someday.
I think it’s such a great inspiration for a fantasy setting first because it’s so improbable—I mean, it’s this great and powerful city that was built on water, rising up from a few little lumps of muddy islands in a lagoon. And it’s full of all these twists and turns and secret places, mazy streets and canals and little walled gardens you can’t see into from the street. I defy any creative person to go there and not come out with a head full of stories.
LB: One of the major differences between Raverra and the historical Venice is the apparent absence of any legal bar to women holding power in their own names and their own right. I see in the end matter of The Tethered Mage you considered setting the story in an alternate history/fantasy Venice. Is this one of the reasons you ultimately didn’t?
MC: Even when it was a historical fantasy in early drafts, my fantasy Venice had gender equality. I already had magic, an entirely different history, and an assortment of other major and minor ways that my alternate Venice diverged from the real one, so women in positions of power were a mere drop in the bucket! Honestly, I find sexism exhausting enough in the real world that I would only write it into a fantasy world (even one based closely on real history) if I specifically wanted to show the struggle against it as part of the story. It’s important to have books that show that struggle, and some of my favorites do just that. But I also love to read and write books where we have lots of smart, capable, badass women everywhere doing awesome things without anyone telling them they’re not allowed.
My editor suggested changing the setting to an original world before she made an offer, and I was actually kind of relieved because I had come up with all these worldbuilding details that had nothing to do with Venice or 17th century Europe, and the book was already pulling pretty far away from that original inspiration. I love building my own worlds too much to stick to historical ones for long!
LB: You have a lot of smart capable badass women in The Tethered Mage. Tell us a little more about Amalia and her mother, the Contessa, and about Amalia and Zaira, who end up linked together because of magic?
MC: Amalia’s mother is La Contessa, a powerful political figure with a seat on the Empire’s ruling council. Amalia is her heir, but instead of being a brilliant Machiavellian manipulator like her mother, she’s a scholar who’d rather ignore politics and hole up in her room tinkering with magical devices and reading books. Their relationship is complicated, with love and frustration on both sides, and was one of my favorites to write.
Zaira, meanwhile, is a pickpocket hiding her extremely dangerous fire magic on the streets, until Amalia winds up getting recruited on the fly to put a seal on Zaira’s magic when it rages out of control and threatens the city. The link created by the seal becomes unintentionally permanent, and Amalia becomes Zaira’s Falconer, the only one who can bind and release her power, even though it’s against imperial law for her to do so. Pretty much no one is happy about this, but especially Zaira.
LB: I know it can be cruel to ask writers about their current reading, so instead I’ll ask about longstanding favourites and people you’d consider to be strong influences on you and your writing. What books loom largest?
MC: Probably the single biggest influence on me as a young writer was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. It felt like the book I’d always been waiting for. I took it out of the library again and again as a kid, then bought a used copy with my own money and read that over and over, too. I love so many things about that book, from the wonderful heroine to the voice and the deep sense of setting (so many little real-feeling details!).
I’ve also loved and learned from lots of other fantasy authors (the complex character relationships and worldbuilding of C. J. Cherryh, the clever dialogue and swift pacing of Roger Zelazny and Steven Brust, and many many more) and YA fantasy authors (over the past year or two I’ve fallen in love with Maggie Stiefvater & Leigh Bardugo for voice, setting/mood, and character). But one of my biggest influences is actually a manga writer/artist, Hiromu Arakawa, for her brilliant manga Fullmetal Alchemist. It is really hard for me not to go into full arm-wavy, squee-laden fangirl mode when talking about how amazing she is. I’ve learned and continue to learn so much from her work (structure, pacing, character, plotting, dramatic tension, the way she can unleash a devastating emotional impact with just these subtle little details or a single glance… SO GOOD).
LB: Do please go full fangirl! What in particular about Fullmetal Alchemist has appealed so much to you?
MC: Okay, so there are SO MANY THINGS Arakawa does SO WELL in this manga. First of all, the plotting is really tight and clean, especially for a comic (not a medium known for tight plotting). She’ll do things like show a character in the background crowd in a train station in one volume, and then like five volumes later you realize it was significant that they were there. She’s not afraid to wrap up plot threads or kill off characters before you feel like they’ve been milked for all they’re worth—meaning it still feels very fresh and surprising when there’s an early victory or horrible crushing twist you weren’t expecting. She maintains several different kinds of dramatic tension simultaneously: wondering what happened in a mysterious past, wondering what certain characters are really up to, classic page-turny OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT tension, and more. She doesn’t drop any details; she introduces her little hints and teasers and they all come together beautifully over time, each with meaning and purpose. AND THAT’S JUST HER PLOTTING.
Her character designs are also SO GOOD. The range of characters she portrays is fantastic, and they all have their own goals and conflicts, flaws and arcs, even side characters who are relatively minor. They don’t exist just to support the main characters’ arcs, but really have their own well-formed stories going on. And their relationships with each other are wonderful, usually with multiple layers to them, with buried or unspoken feelings that may be very different than their surface interactions. The depth she puts into each character is amazing. Even the antagonists who at first seem to fall into the “being of pure, distilled evil” category turn out to have unexpected layers to them, and you wind up with odd moments of sympathy for these horrible monsters. Heck, even her comic relief characters have depth.
And she is also a master of letting small touches carry a huge amount of weight. One little look or a word, or the way someone pauses before speaking, will carry a ton of emotional freight, and just destroy you. For instance, without getting spoilery, there’s this moment in the manga where a character is about to walk into a room with a certain set of expectations for what’s about to happen, and then he walks into that room and the people in it just look at him in this certain way, and in that one moment you know that the whole situation is so different and so much worse than you (or he) thought, and the character is SO SCREWED. Some of that is the art, but that kind of restraint—the perfect touch in just the right place to knock over the boulder, without ever needing to bring in the heavy machinery of melodrama—is present in her storytelling and characterization throughout.
Also her worldbuilding is amazing, and, well, pretty much everything she does. I don’t know how it’s humanly possible to craft something so perfectly on the kind of crazy schedule manga creators have to work under. I could go on, but, uh, that’s probably enough, even if you did ask me to go full fangirl. I may have gotten carried away. (Hey, you asked me to fangirl! And I didn’t even get around to mentioning how she has a wide range of awesome female characters who are badass in so many different ways!)
LB: Let us wrap up with a final question (or two): what’s next for Amalia and Zaira—and what’s next for you?
MC: In the next book, The Defiant Heir, Amalia and Zaira plunge into a very different kind of politics and face a very different kind of magic, as they’re trying to stop the Witch Lords of Vaskandar from uniting against the Serene Empire in war. Both of them are also trying to carve out paths for their own uncertain futures—without getting too spoilery, Zaira has to figure out what matters most to her, and Amalia has to decide how far she’s willing to go and what she’s willing to sacrifice. I’m super excited to show readers Vaskandar and introduce them to some new characters, as well as continuing Amalia & Zaira’s journey.
I’m currently working away on edits to the The Defiant Heir, and after that, I jump straight into Book Three!
LB: Thank you, and good luck!
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.