A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

An incomplete list of things that I love: historical fantasy romance; sunshine/stormcloud pairings; competent ladies (even as side characters); land magic; sentient (or semi-sentient) manor houses; stolen kisses in a private library. I’m pretty sure A Marvellous Light was written just for me.

An administrative error sees Sir Robert Blyth (Robin to his friends) become a civil service liaison to England’s magical bureaucracy. His predecessor has disappeared and Robin’s magical counterpart, Edwin Courcey, is not happy about it. However, when Robin is cursed, the two are forced to work together to unravel both curse and mystery.

Robin is the sunshine of the pair, although he doesn’t have a lot of cause to be cheerful. His parents spent or gave away most of the family fortune, leaving Robin to scrape together enough to keep things running after they died. Being treated like items in their parents’ art collection forged a strong bond between Robin and his sister, but he doesn’t exactly have many friends. In fact, it was a rival of his parents that assigned him his new position, thinking it to be a dead-end job. Nevertheless, for the most part, Robin remains charming, well-mannered and extremely likeable. While intellectual pursuits are not his strong point, he’s good with people and an astute judge of character. He’s a little reckless, but sweet. He’s also totally clueless about magic.

In contrast, Edwin Courcey is from a powerful old magic family. Possessing very little magic himself, he has been the butt of their disdain for years and it has taught him to hold few things dear, lest they be taken from him. What he lacks in magical power, he makes up for with knowledge and intelligence. His prickly surface makes his underlying tenderness and vulnerability all the sweeter.

One person with whom he shares this tender side is his mother, who suffers from chronic illness. Although we see little of her on the page, we get to see what it costs her when she interacts with even a couple of people. Such representation in a historical fantasy was refreshing.

M/M romances can often suffer from a lack of female characters, but I was delighted to see that wasn’t the case in A Marvellous Light. While it could have stood to show a few more female friendships, the variety in the female characters worked well, ranging from badass to bad-tempered. A couple of highlights for me included Robin’s sister, Maude, who loves her brother dearly but is insistent he send her to university now that their parents are out of the picture. Another is Miss Morrissey, Robin’s new secretary, whose fearsome competence is the only reason the office isn’t falling down around their ears… but who was overlooked for Robin’s role by virtue of being female and Punjabi.

The magic system is an interesting one. While the use of gestures in magic is hardly a new idea, it’s not often the sole focus and the author manages to frame it in an original way. Giving Edwin an assistive device in the form of a simple bit of string makes the system both visceral and comprehensible, as well as being an interesting bit of character building.

Cleverly, this dominant form of magic is also not the only form of magic in the book. Land magic also makes an appearance in a number of ways. The presence of multiple systems of magic give some nuance to the story, particularly in relation to marginalised magic users and the subversion of the dominant form. However, this depiction of land magic has thus far been very much tied to Western conceptions of land ownership and boundaries. Perhaps this is fitting for the setting and genre, but remains vaguely disappointing. Despite that, I found it highly entertaining to see two city boys be chased around by a murderous hedge.

The ending was a well-balanced mix of enough conclusion to be satisfying, while at the same time leaving some big loose ends to be woven in to the rest of the series.

I am a big fan of KJ Charles and A Marvellous Light has a similar feel to much of her work: similar period of history, a good balance between action and character development, similarly explicit sex. One difference that’s worth noting is in relation to the sex scenes; while Charles tends to feature strong BDSM elements, they are only very faintly present in A Marvellous Light. This is perhaps balanced out by the torture scene the latter opens with.

So, while I had a few quibbles, A Marvellous Light was very much my cup of tea and is a strong opening to a very promising series.

Published: November 2021 by Tordotcom
Format reviewed: E-book (epub), 437 pages
Series: The Last Binding #1
Genres: Historical fantasy, romance
Source: Kobo
Available: Abbey’s ~ Amazon (AU, CA, UK, US) ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Dymocks ~ Indiebound ~ Kobo

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