May 20, 2024

Review: A Marvellous Light

A Marvellous Light A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book in a trilogy about magic, magical objects, a well-thought-out magic system, and queer romance, set in an alternate-history Britain with native magicians who inherited the magic of the fae when they withdrew from the world. Hundreds of years later, this so-called Last Contract, with its potential to allow unethical magicians to basically steal others' magic without consent for their own purposes, is the subject of a hot pursuit by a group of ruthless magicians who have penetrated to the upper echelons of British magical society--and they are willing to kill to get their hands on the "cup, knife and ring," the three items that will unlock the Last Contract.

Our first of two viewpoint characters, Sir Robert (Robin) Blyth, is unwittingly drawn into this mess when he is appointed to a civil service position after the disappearance of the previous holder of the job, Reginald Gatling. Unknown to Robin, Reginald's great-aunt Flora Sutton is the leader of the Forsythia Society, a group of self-taught female magicians who discovered the "cup, knife and ring" decades earlier, and upon realizing what the Last Contract could mean for British magicians, separated the three items and hid them away. But the aforementioned people trying to hunt the items down could not wring any information about them from Reginald before he was killed, and now they have focused their attention on Robin, thinking he might know something. A painful curse is laid on Robin, and his attempts to get it removed bring him to the attention of one Edwin Courcey, the son of one of Britain's magical families. Edwin unfortunately has very little magic himself, but he has a keen intellect and a knack for solving puzzles. He is also gay, as is Robin, and naturally after their meeting a romance follows (albeit a reluctant one on Edwin's part, due to his dysfunctional family and his fraught relationship with his bullying elder brother Walt). Edwin and Robin work together to remove Robin's curse, discover who killed Reginald, and locate the first of the three magical items, the ring.

This is a really fun story. It's also so very British, down to slang and atmosphere and stiff upper lips (especially on Edwin's part) and the rigid classes of the time. Edwin is the more damaged of the two main characters, and I think undergoes the greatest character growth: he has to overcome his fears of his nasty elder brother and his own self-doubts and low self-esteem due to his small natural magical ability. He also must navigate the hurdles of his burgeoning relationship with Robin (the laws and discrimination against queer people at the time are not explored in any great detail, but they are there). Although Robin, at least initially, is the more well-adjusted of the two, he undergoes a bit of an awakening of his own, as the curse laid on him uncovers a latent ability of foresight.

The best part of this book, however, is the worldbuilding. The magic system is well put together, and sticks to its stated rules--no gotchas or plot-dictated "whoopsies, I can do this now when I couldn't in the previous chapter." There's a rich sense of history to this alternate world, and many unanswered questions: why did the fae leave all those years ago, for instance, and why on earth did they agree to let humans inherit their magic? The fae, or at least the specter of them, are sort of hovering in the background of this whole thing, making me wonder if the dark prophecy of "something is coming" thrown out by those in search of the Last Contract, as the reason for their willingness to kill to find it, is the possibility of the fae returning.

We will see. I've just started the second book of the trilogy, and I've placed a hold on the third at my library. I wasn't expecting too much when I started this series, but now I'm going to see it through to the end.

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