A Marvellous Light
Freya Marske’s inventive and impressive début, A Marvellous Light, is an enchanting blend of magic, mystery and romance set in England in 1908, in which a newly-appointed civil servant finds himself suddenly part of a mysterious and fantastical world of deadly curses, spells and secrets. It’s a clever, well-written story featuring two attractive and strongly characterised protagonists, the magical world-building is vivid without being overly complex or subject to info-dumps, and the opposites/antagonists attract romance is nicely developed and steamy. There are a few places where the pacing flags a bit, and the secondary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, but those issues didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.
Sir Robert – Robin – Blyth inherited a baronetcy upon the recent death of his father, but thanks to the profligacy of both his parents, he needs to work for a living in order to support himself and his younger sister Maud. When the story begins, he’s just arrived at the Home Office to take up the post of Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, a position which opened up after the disappearance of the previous incumbent, Reggie Gatling. Robin hasn’t got a clue what’s expected of him – he’s never even heard of the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints – and assumes his appointment must be a mistake. On his very first morning, he meets the snappish Edwin Courcey – liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly – who rudely demands to know where Reggie is. Robin can’t enlighten him – and is further baffled when the other man starts talking about magic and spells and imbuement and other things that make little to no sense. Assuming, at first, that this is some sort of joke, Robin is sceptical – until Edwin provides a physical demonstration and it’s impossible for him to disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes. Magic is real.
Later that day, Robin has left the office and is still trying to make sense of everything he’s learned when he is accosted by a man – who appears to have no face – who loops a glowing piece of yarn around Robin’s wrist that makes him unable to do anything other than follow where he’s led. Two more men wearing “fog masks” await them – men who tell Robin that his predecessor hid something very important in his office and that Robin is going to help them find it. Robin is determined to do no such thing – but then something is burned into his arm – a pattern of runes that causes excruciating pain which, he later learns, is a curse.
Robin and Edwin don’t get off to the best of starts, but after Robin arrives at work the next morning to find his office has been wrecked, he fills Edwin in on his encounter the previous night and they decide the only option is for them to work together to see if they can find out what Reggie had hidden and if Edwin can find a way to lift the curse. Realising he needs more information than is available to him in London, Edwin invites Robin to accompany him to his family home in Cambridgeshire, where they can make use of the extensive library to research the curse, attempt to work out what happened to Reggie and discover the location of the item the fog-masked men are after.
Robin and Edwin are well-rounded and engaging characters who are like chalk and cheese, in appearance, temperament and magical ability. Robin is completely non-magical; he’s charming, spontaneous and open-hearted with a good sense of humour and an innate generosity, where Edwin is thoughtful and meticulous, somewhat closed-off and cautious. He’s a brilliant scholar with a massive amount of magical knowledge – but not much magical ability, something which causes his family members to look down on him and treat him with disdain. His older brother is a powerful magician who bullied Edwin mercilessly when they were children and continues to do so at every opportunity, and his sister is a social butterfly who, like their parents, turns a blind eye to the way Edwin is treated and often joins in. Robin has no family now apart from Maud; he was never close to his parents, who put on a public face of philanthropy and compassion while really caring only for themselves and who remembered Robin or his sister only when they wanted to use them to show everyone around them what wonderful parents they were.
Robin and Edwin gradually begin to develop a mutual respect and admiration; from this, a genuine friendship grows and is the basis for their romance, which is a nicely-done slow-burn. They have terrific chemistry and I thoroughly appreciated that the author takes the time to draw out the sexual tension and give things time to breathe before they embark on a physical relationship. There are still issues to be settled between them however; Edwin has become so used to having to lock down his true self and hide his most vulnerable side as a form of self-preservation that he finds it difficult to trust and give of himself to Robin, no matter how much he wants to.
I liked the way magic works in the book; we’re told that magicians in England use “cradling” – a system of hand movements based on Cat’s Cradle – to cast spells, and I loved the magical house and the idea of people being magically connected to certain places.
On the downside, the pacing is a little uneven in places, the dénouement is a bit drawn out and slightly repetitive, and the secondary characters are slightly one-note – although I did enjoy Miss Morrisey and her sister (two Anglo-Indian ladies), and hope that perhaps we’ll see a bit more of Lord Hawthorn. I would like to have learned more about the Magical Assembly and the history of magic in England – although as this is a series, perhaps those details will become clear in future instalments.
In the end, though, A Marvellous Light is a highly entertaining and very readable début novel featuring two endearing leads and plenty of gentle humour, magical shenanigans, mystery and romance. I’m more than happy to recommend it, and will definitely be picking up the next in the series.