Melissa Caruso talks The Tethered Mage and writing capable, badass, intelligent women

We talk to author Melissa Caruso about her debut fantasy novel The Tethered Mage

Melissa Caruso’s debut fantasy novel The Tethered Mage is in bookshops (and, you know, the online equivalent) now, and it’s the first in a new series set in the Raverran Empire, where those with magical abilities are conscripted into the army to keep them useful and in check. Naturally, it’s just a matter of time before someone comes along and changes the status quo…

We talked to Caruso about creating this Venetian-inspired fantasy kingdom, mages fighting back, writing strong women, and why everyone needs to read Fullmetal Alchemist.

Sorry, the horrible inevitable first question: how would you pitch The Tethered Mage to a new reader?

(In person? Experience suggests with a lot of incoherent babbling and blushing… I’m working on it!)

THE TETHERED MAGE takes place in a fantasy empire which conscripts mages into the military, assigning them non-mage Falconers who can seal or unleash their power. Amalia, the scholarly and retiring heir to a position on the ruling council, accidentally becomes linked in this way to Zaira, a brash pickpocket who has hidden her devastating fire magic on the streets. The unwilling partners have to work together to try to unravel a deadly intrigue before it can plunge their city into war.

What comes first with a story like this? The world, the characters?

I first got the idea for this story on a long car drive with my husband. He said something to the effect that realistically, in a world where some people were born with powerful magic, those people would inevitably wind up in control. Feeling creatively contrary, I started thinking about what sort of societies might arise in such a world that might NOT put mages on top, and came up with the idea for the Falcon/Falconer system. And then I thought about what an uneasy relationship that could be, and the story took off from there.

Do you have a certain approach to writing a novel? Do you need to have everything fully planned before you sit down to start?

I do a LOT of planning. I always wind up with pages and pages of notes and outlines, and it only keeps growing as I write and revise. But I write the story in dialogue with the outline. I often start drafting before I have everything figured out, to get a hands-on feel for the characters, and I’m perpetually changing the outline as I go to keep up with the story as it shifts while I’m writing.

Were there any specific inspirations, fictional or non, for either the world or the characters?

The setting is loosely based on the Venetian empire, if it had continued to expand and was in the height of its power at the end of the 17th century. It started out as a historical fantasy in early drafts, in fact, but the setting quickly diverged from that original inspiration—first with planned differences like magic and gender equality, but then during drafting the world building kept leading me farther and farther from historical Venice. So when my editor suggested making it an original world, it was a natural step to take, since it was basically already there.

The idea of magic as something the state wants to control is a great starting point, is it a fun place to write a strong character like Zaira from?

It’s really a necessary place to write Zaira from! The Empire’s attempts to control her and use her magic for its own ends are the force Zaira is constantly pushing back against. I couldn’t write her the same way if she didn’t have a good reason to be so full of sharp edges and vinegar. Zaira has such a strong personality (and such strong magic) that only an empire-sized adversary can be a match for her. And of course it’s the state’s laws controlling magic that both bring Amalia and Zaira together and fuel the conflict between them (as well as adding tinder to the conflicts around them).

Are you conscious of the fact that you’re writing strong female characters as you’re working?

I don’t sit down thinking “I’m going to write a bunch of strong female characters in this book.” I just write the characters as they pop into my head. My imagination (like my real life) tends to be full of capable, badass, intelligent women, so a lot of them make their way out onto the page.

Had you always conceived this book as the start of a series?

So the ironic thing is that this was the first novel I originally wrote as a standalone, with no specific plan for a series. In all my previous (unpublished) novels, I’d had these grand plans for sequels, but this time I wanted to tell a complete story in one volume rather than relying on more books to finish the job. I think that’s actually part of why this was the one that got published, since it made me write a better story knowing it had to stand on its own. But when Orbit offered me a trilogy I was really excited, since I had more stories to tell about these characters and this world.

Have you always been drawn to fantasy?

Definitely. The first book I drew with crayons at age 4 was a field guide to dragons; I was obsessed with unicorns in third grade; and my favorite books have always been fantasy. When my elementary school teachers urged me to branch out and read non-fantasy books as well, I’d find a science fiction book in the library and be like, “See? Totally not fantasy!” Whenever I read a book that’s just real-world people with real-world problems, by a quarter of the way through I’m thinking “Hmm, this is okay, but it would be even cooler with some swordfights or maybe a ghost.” (Though a good adventure or mystery can sometimes do the trick.)

Which authors are you particularly excited about at the moment?

There is so much great fantasy out there right now! I feel like I’m always playing catchup with my to read pile, so I’m only now discovering that some amazing authors I’d been hearing about for years are just as good as everyone said, like Naomi Novik, N. K. Jemisin, and Leigh Bardugo. I’m also really enjoying reading my way through all my fellow Orbit 2017 debuts! And I will never, ever stop being arm-wavingly excited about Hiromu Arakawa’s classic manga FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST. Just ask me about it in person sometime, and you’ll see.

Author photo by Erin Re Anderson

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso is available now from Orbit.