a marvellous light

Wednesday, August 10, 2022 |

When people ask what your favorite book is, how do you answer? I never know quite what to say – my tastes are ever-shifting, and so many favorites are books the questioner will not have heard of. But if I had to fill out a questionnaire about what I’d enjoy reading most, Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light would tick almost all of the boxes. It feels almost tailor-made for me, with 1920s-era shenanigans, a m/m relationship that goes from strangers-to-friends-to-lovers, magic, British manners and dressing, and trying to solve a mystery at a country house.

a marvellous light by freya marske book cover
Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He's struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents' excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what's been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he's always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it--not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin's predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they've been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles--and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

What is A Marvellous Light? A lot of fun!! As I told a reading friend, it feels like a mashup of Garth Nix’s Newt’s Emerald and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. By that I mean it has some of the hallmarks of a British historial romance/romp, but there’s also a strong thread of philosophical inquiry into magic throughout the book, which makes sense as Edwin Courcey is into spellcraft, and Robin Blyth is new to magic and must have everything explained to him. Academic theory gives way to hands-on mystery and crime-solving, peppered with musings on specific patterns of wallpaper (??!), magical party games, and interpersonal conflict. It works, especially because of the growing sympathy between the main characters. There’s also a murder and a missing object right off the bat – and the main character Edwin and Robin spend most of the rest of the book trying to solve it (aka it is structured as a murder mystery).


Now I’ve also said the words romance and romp, and I don’t want to mislead you, so there are NO: formal dances, dinners, Season, or courtship. There ARE: curses, hedge mazes, spunky younger sisters, unpleasant characters, family trauma, and interesting digressions into how magic might work in an already classist system. At the heart of A Marvellous Light are two imperfect and dissimilar men doing as best they can with the hand they are dealt, both lonely in their own ways, meeting and finding something within each other to trust and cherish. Not really a romance (though we do leave them happy!), but an interesting historical mystery with a heaping helping of finding unexpected love.


Unfortunately, the world in A Marvellous Light is not a great alternate world for women: they have no rights of their own, and the male characters in the book, even if they recognize the harm, do not do anything or think of it beyond a passive sort of “oh, right, that’s the way things are, seems a bit unfair.” Characterization of Edwin’s sister Bel and her marriage is particularly unfinished: she’s portrayed as an extremely selfish, awful person, who runs a house and a social group… but she cedes always to her husband, and lets him mansplain happily – does she have agency or no? Robin’s sister Maud is mad to go to university, and Robin is passively undecided about the whole thing for most of the book – and this is his sister’s FUTURE he has in his hands, and he claims to love her. In addition, the inclusion of the Morrisey sisters (both secretaries, women of color, and seemingly doing men’s jobs for them) felt a bit tokenized, but I will leave that to others who know more.


Of course, you can fully enjoy an imperfect book, and I did. This title was 100% my catnip. I loved the descriptions of English houses and grounds, the complicated magical system that we only scratched the surface of, Robin’s cluelessness giving way to insight, Edwin’s slow progression towards trust, and various adventures in curse breaking. I can’t wait to see what Marske writes next.


In all, A Marvellous Light is a romp of the first order. Not completely fault-free, but marvelous fun! (see what I did there?)


Recommended for: fans of UK-set romances and mysteries, anyone who likes historical AUs (basically, stories with murders and house parties and man-eating hedges), and those interested in queer fantasy.

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