A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding book 1) by Freya Marske (book review).

Sir Robert Blyth, the not all that rich baronet of Thornley Hill, a former mediocre Oxford scholar and now an ambivalent civil servant, would like to be just plain Robin and hide from his responsibilities. His late social climbing parents insulted a senior man in Whitehall and now Robin has the dubious honour of having what seems to be the most useless and dead end posting in all the civil service, assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints.

Even finding the office was a challenge and, now he’s finally found his desk, he has hopes of one day finding a job description and maybe even some sort of superior to complain to. He was not expecting his first meeting to be with Mr. Courcey, liaison to the magical community or expecting to discover a hidden world of magic.

It may have been a malicious accident but Robin has the job now and, with the reluctant help of Mr. Courcey, it’s up to him to find out what happened to his predecessor and perhaps save every living British magician.

‘A Marvellous Light’ slipped past my eyes in that happy way the best books do. Full of that pre-WW1 British splendour the harks back to country manors, full tea trays and the golden age where the sun never set on the British Empire. The great manor houses of England are still full of servants toiling away for the wealthy. Young ladies are barely allowed into university and the suffrage movement is gathering steam. Cars are the latest thing.

‘The Peculiarities’ by David Liss has a similar premise of hidden magic in the late Victorian to Edwardian era feel but that is a magic more imposed upon the world with the rise of modernity pushing the old power aside. Freya Marske’s magic is adapting and present in the people and the land and while there is still the have and the have nots this is not a novel that’s thrusting the economic or gender divide at the reader. They are there as facts but as part of a world not as highlights of inequity.

There is less guilt. This is a fantasy of that time period as seen by those near the top and that’s okay. There’s tea trays and weekend house parties and libraries full of leather bound books and secret rooms. There’s dressing for dinner and always having a hat, gloves and pocket handkerchief.

Marske beautifully links the modern world with the old through the medium of magical practice and the microcosm of her characters. Magical practice has become rigid and staid and steeped in what has always been done even as scientific marvels push ahead. Courcey is a small voice of innovation in a sea of tradition, just like Jonathan Strange is in Susannah Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell’. Clarke’s novel is about magic, almost as an entity in itself, as much as it is a quest to save a damsel. Marke gives us a book about the issues our family etch upon our souls and dealing with them as we try to become ourselves for better or worse.

The mystery and the quest that push the plot along are interesting and engaging but serves the characters, not the other way around. I read the book wanting characters to find their places in the world, even characters that are barely secondary, there as motivations for more central figures. I wanted to turn a page to discover Robin’s sister off to university or his secretary acknowledged as running things in her own right.

While it isn’t altogether unexpected that there might be some behind closed doors intimate hijinks in a period novel some readers might appreciate a warning. Not only is the sex between two gentlemen, it is much more explicit than I unexpected. Nothing felt out of character and the scenes are in no way shoehorned in for titillation, but I did expect the metaphoric door to close on their intimacy much earlier than it did.

‘A Marvellous Light’ felt like ‘Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell’ without footnotes and that weightiness of prose that makes the book feel like history. Merecedes Lackey’s ‘Elemental Masters’ has a similar time period and hidden magicians but less substance. Maske has built a wonderful world with some wonderful characters that I want more of. Now. Please. It does feel like there should be a sequel in the works and I hope it brings in some of the female characters that were on the periphery here. A story from their perspective would give another view of this world that would be interesting and broaden the scope more than it already is.

L.K. Richardson

December 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 384 page hardback. Price: $24.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-25078-887-0)

check out website: www.tor.com

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