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The debut novel of Freya Marske, A Marvellous Light takes place in a fantastical version of Edwardian England, riddled with secrets, curses, and conspiracies. While the book struggles to find a balance between a romance and a murder mystery, it leans more seriously towards the former by exploring the unlikely friendship and sexual chemistry that blossoms between the non-magical Robin Blyth and the somewhat-magical Edwin Courcey—two men with their fair share of insecurities, burdens, and regrets, who must keep their homosexuality a secret from society and find a way to save each other.

Although he’s a baronet, Robin Blyth and his sister Maud are far from well-to-do, due to their late parents’ over-zealous spending habits. Robin takes up a government job for the paycheck and security, only to realize that he’d secured his post due to an “error in paperwork,” and is soon embroiled in a mystery that involves the hitherto hidden magical society of England. Edwin Courcey, a gentleman of magical lineage, is in charge and fills Robin in on his temporary duties—to scour reports and inform Courcey of supernatural incidents that merit investigation. Edwin has the clear intention of wiping his new underling’s memories once Robin’s missing predecessor, Robert Gatling, is found, or a more suitable candidate is selected for the job.

To the surprise of these two protagonists, if not that of the readers, they fall in love.

While a recreative, romance-filled romp in its own regard, the blurb for A Marvellous Light—“Red White & Royal Blue meets Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”—is rather misleading. Such comparisons might set up entirely different expectations for the reader, detracting from the novel’s own appeal. Although both Susanna Clarke and Freya Marske’s novels are set in alternate magical versions of England that are firmly rooted in actual history, Marske’s worldbuilding is nowhere thorough or as annotated as Clarke’s. And there isn’t much in common with Red White & Royal Blue except that they are both gay romances that rely heavily on fan fiction tropes, with differing degrees of success.

Marske spends some time in explaining the rules of magic—such as the process of “cradling” and the scholarly Courcey’s musings on magical theory, gleaned from esoteric books—but it isn’t entirely clear. Much of it is left deliberately vague and cryptic, such as the contracts with the Fae or how exactly curses work, while some of it might seem intuitively familiar to the average reader of fantasy fiction. Overall, the writer’s soft magic system could do with more development and explanation in the later books.

As Robin is suddenly introduced to a secret world brimming with magic, binding spells, and ancient contracts, he is accosted by strangers, tortured for information, and placed under a deadly curse. The curse also awakens Robin’s latent ability of seeing “visions” or foresight, and as a result, he is soon valuable to the aristocratic magical community that had earlier written both the men off as good-for-nothings. In an effort to break this curse, Edwin and Robin travel together to Edwin’s home in the country, and we meet his stuck-up and insolent siblings who bully Edwin and play cruel tricks on Robin. The murder of Gatling (that occurs in the book’s first chapter) as well as these revelations about Edwin’s childhood trauma, add a darker undertone to what is otherwise a more-or-less lighthearted novel.

Although magical ability may manifest in anyone, it is mostly passed on through family lineage, and a secret that the rich and powerful are determined to keep. Robin has no inkling of magic until he meets Courcey who conjures a snowflake before his very eyes, yet he takes to the magical world very quickly, which I found a little hard to believe. Magic is also deeply connected to the land, and an estate may claim a stranger as its rightful heir if it so chooses. Marske thus deploys magic as a metaphor to comment on the nature of contracts and consent in different scenarios, be it among the haves and the have-nots, two people in bed, or between man and nature.

In many regards, A Marvellous Light is closer to The Beautiful Ones, the fantastical novel of manners by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in which the power plays and fraught relationships between the different socialites felt more important and interesting than other aspects of the setting. In Marske’s romantic fantasy, the protagonists spend their nights in a country house, are victims of magical sports, quibble in the library, and get lost in a neatly-manicured but murderous hedge maze. While the overly-long domestic scenes might feel like melodramatic filler, they allow Robin and Edwin the chance to know each other, offer mutual comfort, and give us a crucial insight into Edwin’s unlikeable and cruelhearted family members.

Nevertheless, this novel might not be for everyone. Even though the writer’s prose is witty and filled with striking descriptions and turns of phrase, it often feels unwieldy and overbearing, with sentences overloaded with details that don’t “flow” easily as a result. The book also flounders with the pacing, especially in the first half which is peppered with extended descriptions of events that add little to the plot or character exposition. While Edwin is an introverted academic and Robin is the more outgoing one, their personalities are not that well-differentiated, and it is easy to get confused as the narration frequently switches between their perspectives.

The love story between Edwin and Robin that forms the bulk of the book is inevitable from their very first meeting in a cramped government office. Both are healing from trauma; they have their own vulnerabilities and boundaries and are in a unique position to offer each other empathy and affection. There are a few erotic scenes, alongside moments of tenderness, so if you are looking for a steamy gay romance with a magical subplot, A Marvellous Light might be an escapist read.

Yet, while I enjoyed their banter and sexual tension, I wasn’t particularly won over by the romance which felt formulaic and not at all refreshing. Fan fiction tropes usually work better in an established world with characters already familiar to the reader, and not the other way round. I would have personally preferred it if the nuances of Edwin and Robin’s relationship was explored slowly over the course of the trilogy instead of being quickly consummated halfway through the first book. (After all, there is a reason why “slowburn” is one of the most popular fanfic tropes!)

The supporting characters aren’t quite given the space they deserve. There’s Miss Morrissey—Robin’s outspoken secretary—who makes a stronger first impression than Robin himself but is missing from most of the scenes, and also Mrs. Flora Sutton who makes for a very formidable and mysterious personality but dies too soon, taking most of the magical secrets with her. In fact, the chapters that occur in Sutton’s cottage with its enchanted hedge maze and hidden rooms, are by far the most engaging, and I hope the writer revisits this semi-sentient estate in the sequels.

Finally, the novel’s choice of historical settings is a convenient backdrop to explore the nuances of queer love and gender inequality. The story takes place in a well-realized Edwardian England that still struggles to outgrow its patriarchal and homophobic norms, despite the advances in magic. Set in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s infamous trial, same-sex liaisons are still looked down upon, the Suffragette Movement is briefly referenced, and women struggle to receive a college education (whether magical or not).

Thus, while A Marvellous Light has its merits, it isn’t for all readers of speculative fiction. If you’re looking for fantasy with academic overtones and intricate worldbuilding, you’re better off giving Clarke’s hefty Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a reread. And if you’re the kind who prefers an angsty slow-burn romance with a historical fantasy backdrop, the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden might be up your alley. Lovers of queer romances with layered storytelling and more buildup, may also enjoy TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Tree. But if you’re in the mood for a steamy queer romance in a Downton Abbey setting with a vaguely interesting murder mystery, some spicy sex scenes, and passionate kisses generously sprinkled throughout, A Marvellous Light might just be your preferred cozy comfort read.

Archita Mittra is a writer and artist with a love for all things vintage, whimsical, and darkly fantastical. She occasionally reads tarot cards, has more hobbies than she can count, and loves blueberry milkshakes. She lives in Kolkata (India) with her family and rabbits. You can check out her blog here and say hi on Twitter/Instagram.
Current Issue
18 Sep 2023

Ama’s arm rested protectively around the girl’s shoulder as the giant bird glided above, its head angling right to left. Violet-black wings soared across a cloudless sky, blocking the sun’s midday rays and swathing sections of the village in deep shadow. Given its size, this argentavis was one of her first, but too far above for her to differentiate by name. Even across the distance, Ama could feel its heartbeat synced to hers, their lives intertwined until death.
She is leaving the world that is pink with desire, on her gray cardboard rocket ship.
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