I love it when I take a chance on a book and it pays off. I knew nothing about Freya Marske or this novel, A Marvellous Light, but the description was sufficient to persuade me to buy it. No regrets. This Edwardian fantasy novel about magicians, with a gay romance and plenty of class and family drama, is a perfect spring read (or indeed, a perfect read for any season). Marske takes a mystery and spins it out into a tight drama with an interesting cast of supporting characters.
Robin Blyth learns about magic on his first day appointed to a new civil servant position. Still dealing with the death of his parents and becoming head of his small household, Robin struggles to make sense of what he has learned. But he has no time to adapt: the shady people who killed his predecessor come after him, hoping he knows more, forcing him to team up with his sullen colleague, Edwin Courcey, magician. Together, Robin and Edwin need to figure out what these people want, why they are willing to kill for it, and how to save Robin for a curse that might otherwise kill him.
Let’s get right into talking about magic. I enjoyed Marske’s portrayal of magic as a combination of power and technique. Some magicians have a great deal of power but struggle to use it well. Others, like Edwin, have very little raw power yet have the intelligence and wherewithal to figure out more innovative spellwork. The actual casting, involving complicated finger positions (cradling) would doubtless be visually intriguing if this book were ever adapted—your aphantasic reviewer here had to put her book down and rearrange her fingers in order to visualize it!
The relative inequities among various magicians, and the intersection of this with class in Britain, works very well. I like how magic is secret yet not a particularly closely guarded one. Edwin’s frustration that Britain’s magic has ossified compared to other countries, some of which actually do research, is really interesting and something I hope we get to explore further in the series. Overall, the worldbuilding and action here reminds me of both C.L. Polk and Naomi Novik!
The actual plot is … fine. It’s a good mystery, if a little obvious at times, and the action and pacing are uneven. While I enjoyed the climax and conclusion, they came upon suddenly, with a supporting character and a new minor character being introduced to quickly round out the cast of allies. Marske wraps up the “mystery” in a sense while leaving plenty of room for sequels. It’s not a totally satisfying ending, but it works.
No, A Marvellous Light shines on its main characters. The alternating perspectives between Robin and Edwin are great. The burgeoning romance is ever-so-subtle before blossoming into need, which I’m told is good. The sex scenes turn more explicit than I expected, and this book confirmed for me that, while I really don’t think there is any good word for genitalia, I would at least like variety in the words being used. That complaint aside, I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of attraction, desire, disappointment, and dissatisfaction in this romance.
Come for the magic, stay for the characters, and allow yourself to get enveloped in this world. There is so much more I want from Marske (in a good way). I am definitely reading the second book.