Thursday, October 26, 2023

Review: A Power Unbound by Freya Marske

Building on what comes before, a heady blend of adventure, politics and personal growth... with not a little flirting and sex thrown in for good measure.

A Marvellous Light, the first in Freya Marske's trilogy of queer Edwardian fantasy romances, was also my first ever review on Nerds of a Feather, lo those whole two years ago. It really doesn't feel that long at all, especially with regard to this series - three books across those two years is not to be sneezed at. And now we get to see the trilogy as a thing whole and complete, as well as go "ooh another book" and devour it whole (as I may or may not have done).

But I'll start with A Power Unbound simply as itself, rather than as the culmination of the series. As was teased relatively heavily before the book came out, it follows two characters we already knew - Lord Hawthorn, who has featured in both previous book, and Alan(zo) Ross(i) whom we met in the second installment - who had me tipping my head to one side and pulling a face when I found out. Because it is an... interesting pairing, to say the least. They have very different backgrounds, aims, pursuits, contexts, and, most critically, classes and they very much did not get on when last we met them. How... exactly is that going to work?

Well, the answer lies in a criticism I had of A Restless Truth, in fact. Where there, Marske dabbled briefly into examining the politics of the players in her world - peers and posh nearly all, bar one - but stopped short of actually interrogating it, here she's actually taken a full step into that thorny bush of problems. For all that romantasy in the style she's writing is relatively recently in vogue, she's also playing with tropes and settings that abound in non-magical romance stories, and one of those is, as she begins with, a set of characters who all come from the very upper echelons of society. Peerages everywhere. Can't walk through a room without stepping on a lord. And there's a lot to be said (and has been said by people who engage far more thoroughly with romance as a genre than I do) about what that means, when we fill our stories with only the tiniest percentage of the people in the world we're talking about. We get to play in beautiful settings - country manors with fashionable wallpaper and lovingly landscaped gardens - and gad about the country without needing to think of the cost, or the jobs our characters ought to be attending. But... it's a fiction, on top of the fiction we're already consuming. It hides behind it all the pain and suffering and struggle atop which those peers sit. And Marske does, in bits, pick up on this in her second book, without ever being fully willing to grasp the nettle.

But once you cast one of your two love interests as someone outside of that tiny circle of privilege, you do just have to go for it. And she does. And so she solves - to an extent (I'll come back to this) - her personality problem by making it explicitly somewhat political. Jack and Alan's relationship is entirely built on their respective places in the social hierarchy. It starts and ends with Alan being willing to tell Jack to his face that he's a rich bastard, and the reader having to sit with that, fully ponder it, as we get spelled out throughout the book what that truly means in a romantic relationship. What someone in Jack's position might take away from someone, the harm they could do. And what someone in Alan's might have to be willing to tolerate for the sake of simple survival.

And she lets it get incredibly messy.

Because these are two people for whom politics, sex, romance and conflict are all bundled together in a chaotic heap, with both of their coping mechanisms gearing towards bickering and sexual interests that intersect very very heavily with their contexts in life. And so, by focusing us on the politics upon which so much of this rests, she manages to create a very tight atmosphere and a palpable sexual tension that rockets you through the story... unless you pause to really think about it, that is.

Which is my "to an extent". For the duration of the book, especially if you read it in two hurried sittings, you can totally buy into what she's doing. You can enjoy the sniping and the sarcasm and the building heat of their interactions. It absolutely works. It ties in beautifully with a lot of what's happening in the world. But... when you come away from it after finishing the book, when you let it settle in your mind for a bit, you can't help but be convinced it won't last. That they don't really work together, at least not in the secure way the previous couples have. They're both, in and of themselves, really great characters, and their relationship developing is fascinating, but there's something not quite right about it, that feels like there's no chance it'll stand the test of time. Not so much happily ever after as happily for now.

But they are both great characters, individually, and for all that doubt, if you can focus purely on what happens in the book as it happens, it's an awful lot of fun. Their dynamic being such a confrontational one means there's a huge opportunity for banter and snark, and Marske does this exceptionally, while critically managing to stay on the right side of the line so neither of them says anything truly unforgiveable for the reader. They're assholes, but they're only assholes, not actually awful. This is particularly true for Hawthorn, who has been a sarcastic bastard throughout the series, and now gets to undermine that a little with his inner monologue, while continuing to be the same jackass we've known and loved throughout. For him, it was always going to be tricky trying to humanise him without overdoing it - yes, he's had some bad shit happen to him throughout his life, but if we push too hard into "actually he's all mushy on the inside", it ruins the fun. But she manages to tread the careful line both for the sake of his personality, and for allowing him to have genuine, traumatic life events while still having the narrative hold him somewhat accountable for his enormous privilege.

Alan though... Alan is just fascinating. There's a whole essay you could write about Alan and attraction and sex. The man has a lot going on. But in a story that is so wholly dominated by rich people and rich people problems, where he has to carry the entire weight of "so hey, remember the majority of the population isn't like this", he manages to do so while still being such a delight to read.

One of the ways in which his character - and his relationship with Jack - is resolved though is through the lens of sex, and this is where we start to see things veering off a little from the previous two... because there's a lot more sex, and a lot sooner, for the POV characters in this than previously. It makes sense in context - they're different people who are just much less het up about sex being the end point of a pre-existing romantic dynamic than other characters have been - but it gives the book a whole different pacing and vibe than what you might have expected going in. The sex is also rather less... vanilla. Which isn't to say it's a full kinkfest (it's really really not), but things have definitely kicked up a notch, even while looping back to some content we saw right from the beginning in book 1.

For me personally, this was a bit of a downside. Not because I don't think it ought to have been there - I think as a lens onto the characters it's incredibly useful and realistic, this is the relationship they would absolutely have - but simply because I am, in general, a massive sucker for pining. And neither of the two characters falling for one another here are capable of pining in any meaningful way. It's not in their nature. So if you love them, if you love how they relate, then it's a plus, because it is such an accurate, well-drawn reflection of them. But for me... it held the place of other things I'd have wanted to see more, even as I knew they made no sense. Preferences like this don't have to be logical.

But it is also emblematic a little of the series - where the first two are somewhat in lockstep in how they approach many things, the third takes a bit of a turn. It's more political, it's sexier, and it's more willing to look outside the bounds of the relationship that's happening and instead focus on a lot wider ramifications. Some of this was inevitable for the conclusion of a trilogy - we need that resolution to all the threads that have been teased out beforehand - but some of it does feel like it represents a true shift. It feels as though, in this book, Marske is interested in different things, different characters, different parts of her world, and while neither approach is better than the other, it's that change that feels a little... odd. Not bad, just unexpected.

That being said, there were some things that felt a little wedged in at the end that possibly could have done with a bit more work to make them fit. We gain a new character about two thirds of the way into the book, who changes an awful lot, who has an awful lot of information, and there simply isn't time to process most of it because we've got the crescendo of all the events of the series to deal with. Likewise, by getting to that crescendo, by getting all the information from various places that has to lock together to get us there, we get this sudden rush of all sorts of stuff that just never gets bedded down. The "other types of magic" that have been teased from book one, the things Flora Sutton was good at and that Edwin was so fascinated by, really needed fleshing out a bit more by the end of things. Not necessarily giving us answers, but defining the scope of the questions, would have been enough.

But this is often the way with trilogies, it's just disappointing when another one doesn't quite manage to land the ending. And it's most of the way there, it has most of the parts, we just have had so much time being able to acclimatise to new information through all the previous content that when we're deprived of that here, it feels all the worse for it. I'm hard-pressed to hold it against it too much though. I just had so much fun for so much of it, and for so much of the series, and the characters are so fun, and there's so much promise... I'm willing to forgive a little chaotic mess at the ending. It's not perfect, but it's still a great time, and without going into too much detail on exactly how it all goes down, I very much like the spirit of the choices made, even if not always the execution.

What I do think though, is that for all the changes in this entry into the series felt like a shift from what came before, maybe jarringly so, they're all good changes, they're things it's so worth exploring in stories like these, and I hope they speak to how future Marske books will go. Because the more I think about it, the more I would have loved this more thoughtful approach throughout the series - it's something so many fantasy/historical novels are sorely lacking, and there's so much more she could do with it, with time and maybe a new series or perspective character to play with. A whole series from someone like Alan Ross? Amazing. And so I keep my fingers crossed for more books from her, with more of this right from the start, so we can see how far she can run with it.


The Math

Highlights: Genuine engagement with the politics and inequalities of the time period, Jack Alston - snarkiest bastard in England, return to some very enjoyable background characters from book one

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: A Power Unbound, Freya Marske [Pan Macmillan, 2023]

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