It is Robin Blyth’s first day on a new job, stuck in a bureaucratic position he doesn’t really understand in an out-of-the-way office. When Edwin Courcey shows up at his door, Robin learns his predecessor in the job has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He also comes to learn about a magical world he had no idea even existed. Apparently, Edwin works for a secret magical society and Robin is meant to be his civil service liaison. Robin never should have ended up in the job, however; an administrative error and some bad blood saw him put in a position meant for someone familiar with the magical world. Now, Robin has to abruptly come to terms with the idea of magic and his new role in this world.
Edwin can’t help but be frustrated that he is suddenly stuck with Robin, given how ill equipped the man is for the job. But when Robin is attacked by men looking for information they believe he has, it is clear Edwin can’t just tidily get the job confusion sorted out. The attackers cursed Robin and they aren’t going to give up on trying to find out what he knows, so Edwin must step in and try to help the best he can. Unfortunately, Edwin doesn’t have much magic of his own — something his unpleasant siblings are happy to point out. But he is incredibly smart and great at research and he is going to do his best to help Robin get rid of the curse, set things to rights, and then wipe Robin’s memories free of the whole sordid mess. Even if it means a trip to the Courcey family estate, where they must encounter Edwin’s obnoxious and horrid family.
As Robin and Edwin spend more time together, they begin to form a somewhat uneasy friendship, that ultimately moves to a real affection and attraction. But as they dig further into the mystery of what happened to Robin’s predecessor, who attacked Robin, and what they want, the situation becomes even more dire. The curse is worsening, Robin is plagued by visions, and the attackers continue to strike. And when Robin and Edwin begin to learn the truth of what is really going on, it is even more horrifying. But the men have come so far and learned to rely on one another, and find they make a strong team. With a little help and a lot of hard work, they may just be able to take the first steps in stopping a plan that could destroy all the magic users in England.
A Marvellous Light is the first book in Freya Marske’s new The Last Binding series and I really loved this story. The highlight for me is Marske’s interesting take on magic and detailed world building. I found it particularly clever the way magic is conducted using finger movements called “cradling” (harkening back to the childhood “cat’s cradle” game played with string on your fingers). In fact, Edwin, who has fairly minor magical power, uses the string as a sort of crutch in his own magic, something that subjects him to some scorn and ridicule from his more powerful siblings. There are some elements that could have been more fully developed, particularly the magical Assembly that is the sort of an organizing body of all the magic users. But overall, I found the world building to be really well done, with lots of different elements to uncover as the story develops.
The romance between Edwin and Robin is a fairly slow burn. This is a pretty long book and, by the halfway point, I just felt like these two were starting to even consider themselves friends, versus just co-workers forced together by circumstance. But ultimately, things flare up between them, both romantically and sexually. There are some nicely intense scenes, and a particularly steamy one where Edwin uses his magic on Robin to great effect. But I think what strikes me more than the romance between them is the way these men see each other, and bring out the strength in one another. There is a sense that both of them have been kind of floating along in their lives. Robin has lost his parents and is having to deal with caring for his sister and sorting the estate and he isn’t really feeling up to handling any of it. Edwin is brilliant, but years of emotional abuse from his caustic family have left him feeling unworthy. So this mystery and adventure brings out the best in both of them. It gives each man someone to rely on, but also a renewed confidence that they have the strength and ability to take some control of the situation and their own lives.
This is the first of a trilogy, so the immediate mystery of the missing bureaucrat, as well as who attacked Robin and why, is wrapped up here, but there is a bigger picture that is just starting to develop. I think it ultimately all comes together well, and I enjoyed how so many little seemingly innocuous moments throughout the book turn out to all connect at the end. However, I also found this mystery gets set aside and often overshadowed by other elements of the story. Robin has been attacked and cursed and is dealing with increasing pain and a seemingly dire situation, yet no one seems to feel too much urgency about resolving it, including in many cases Robin himself. Edwin is buried in the library researching and it literally doesn’t occur to Robin until almost the end of the story to maybe help him try to find some answers. Instead, we spend a lot of time in the middle of the book at a house party at Edwin’s family home, where we see Edwin and Robin interact with Edwin’s incredibly awful siblings and their friends. I think the main point here is to show how badly Edwin’s family treats him and how he is actually a lot more powerful than anyone realizes. Not because he has raw magical ability, but because he has an incredibly sharp mind and he can put things together so fast, can create spells and use his mind in ways no one else can. But I think that point is made many times over and it just becomes a little too much filler. Now, I will say, some elements in this section do end up becoming important later. But this part of the story went on overlong for me and took some of the energy out of the book, especially the middle. Things jump start so nicely at the beginning, with the murder, the curse, the attack, and the mystery of what’s going on. Then the ending has a lot of excitement and builds to a really interesting series arc. But there is just too much in the middle that doesn’t quite feel like it is contributing enough and it slows the pacing down.
I do want to give a shout out to Robin’s administrative assistant and her sister, who prove to be both incredible helpful and super likable, as a pair of clever women who are used to being underestimated. I loved the sisters and hope we continue to see them in future books. The story also gives a nod to how women are often overlooked on multiple occasions (particularly women of color, in the case of the sisters), including noting how women aren’t given the same magical education as men. So I liked this acknowledgement of the gender roles and stereotypes and how they play out.
While I do think the pacing issues slowed things down somewhat, I did really enjoy this story. I found the magical world creative and the larger conflict unveiled to be very intriguing. I am very much looking forward to the rest of the trilogy and seeing where Marske takes this story.