Thursday, December 16, 2021

Microreview [Book]: A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

A queer fantasy romance set in a magical version of Edwardian England, where an obscure branch of the civil service liaises with a secret world of magicians.

Cover artist: Will Staehle

The novel follows Sir Robert Blyth, a baronet in reduced circumstances, whose posting to a small parliamentary liaison role that no one has ever heard of leaves him not only discovering the magical counterpart to his own society, but trying to solve the mystery of his predecessor’s untimely disappearance. Unfortunately, the only help he seems to have in either of these things comes from his rather frosty magician opposite number, Edwin Courcey, and a helpful secretary somewhat dubious of his capabilities. Blyth and Courcey must work together, however distasteful the proposition seems, to navigate mysterious attacks, strange paperwork, unexpected visions and a hostile hedge maze, and possibly save every magician in England.

If I had to describe this novel in one word, it would be “delightful”. It’s a novel that, primarily, lives or dies on how much you like the two viewpoint characters, and Marske has made them both so absolutely charming in their different ways that I couldn’t help but be sucked in. Is it evident from the moment they meet that they’re going to fall in love? Entirely! Is this in any way a hindrance to enjoying watching it unfold? Only if you don’t like mutual pining.

In Blyth, Marske gives us a himbo hero, all kind heart and big fists, determined to be a good person, in spite of his upbringing by political, image-obsessed parents. He’s the face, for the most part, of the benevolent side of Edwardian England’s gentry. Someone for whom life has, up to now, always been easy and whose name alone does half the talking for him, and who thus has a blithely generous attitude to everyone he meets, at least until experience proves otherwise.

Courcey meanwhile, though in a semi-separate society to Blyth, has grown up dismissed by everyone who knows him for his weak magical talent, bullied by his family and derided for his bookish passions and personal reserve. He’s distrustful, inward focussed and wary of those he meets, ever expecting them to turn on him as he’s been taught everyone will.

Neither of them are stunningly original characters, nor is pairing them up romantically a masterstroke of invention, but they both manage to spring out of the page as rounded, believable people pretty much from the start, and that’s what sells the whole thing.

That, and Marske’s commendably light touch approach to the Edwardian setting. It would be very easy, with a novel like this, to go all in on the petticoats and manners, and throw everything at it in the name of worldbuilding, but she doesn’t – because she doesn’t need to. It’s an era many of us now have convenient short hand for, from novels and films from Sherlock Holmes to Jeeves and Wooster, and so we only need the outlines to understand the whole drawing. It’s not totally sparse – Marske spends plenty of time describing the specifics of certain places, or people’s dress when it matters – but she doesn’t labour the point where it’s not needed and this leaves her space to spend on both characters and plot, which lets the story feel pacey and driven. But it doesn’t overburden us, or fall to the risk of excessive twee that lurks whenever anyone writes about the Victorians or Edwardians.

It does however, also leave space for plenty of smut. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that, in a couple of instances, I’m a little bit dubious about her grasp of… ahem… male anatomy. There’s a passage early on in which a character’s “lips and cock twitch in unison” when skimming a salacious novel, which was a mental image I’m really not sure I needed. Is it egregious? No. It’s nowhere near the equivalent of a male-written female character breasting boobily down the stairs. But it did cause me to pause, reflect, and wonder if I’d misread it. Nor is it incessant - there are only a few moments like that, here and there throughout the book – and so it is easy enough to ignore after the initial confusion. But it’s a strange contrast to how well-drawn everything else is.

Her light touch also carries through to her writing of character chemistry and the development of relationships. Especially in a novel leaning into the manners and aristocracy side of Edwardian, there would be a certain amount of emotional whiplash if any personal relationships progressed with much speed at all. And so the key high point of the romance writing, for me, is the mutual pining between Courcey and Blyth, building slowly through the book. Marske makes it impossible to imagine anything happening quickly in that relationship, in her world-building and in the personalities of her characters, and so leaves the reader balancing in wanting it all to continue to be drawn out, even as they yell “now kiss!” at the page.

We don’t learn a great deal about her magical society through the course of the story, it’s true, but I honestly think this is a boon, not a burden. There are no obvious unbound threads of questions that underpin how this specific novel hangs together, and she’s left space for revelations in the sequels (as I believe this is intended to be a trilogy). She’s given us enough for the story to work, and for none of the plot revelations to feel pulled out of hat, but as with how she portrays the time period, she’s not overburdened the reader with things that obscure the true focus of the book – the inner thoughts of the two viewpoints, and their burgeoning relationship. She’s left me wanting to learn more about her society, it’s true, but not feeling short-changed by what I’ve been given.

All in all, it’s an absolute cupcake of a book. It’s not a big, substantial meal that’ll leave you pondering it for days afterwards, but it cuts out any risk of it being too sickly sweet by being small, perfectly formed and… well… delightful. I'll take ten.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for instantly lovable characters

+1 for queer historical fiction, of which we always need more 

Penalties: -1 for somewhat implausible depictions of penis behaviour

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 well worth your time and attention

Reference: A Marvellous Light Freya Marske [Pan Macmillan, 2021]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea