Maud Blyth is aboard the R.M.S. Lyric, traveling from New York to England. She is posing as a companion to an elderly woman making the trans-Atlantic voyage. In reality, Mrs. Navenby is a magician who is one of the three holders of artifacts for a powerful magical contract. The artifacts are hidden, but if they fall into the wrong hands, the results could be devastating for England’s magical community. At the behest of her brother, Robin, who has faced his own adventures protecting the artifacts, Maud informed Mrs. Navenby that the artifacts are at risk and is now traveling with her to England. Unfortunately, the voyage has has barely begun when Maud finds Mrs. Navenby dead in their cabin and some of her belongings stolen by someone clearly looking for her artifact. Maud has no magic of her own, nor does she know who is after the artifacts or even what Mrs. Navenby’s item looks like. But what she does have is strong will, determination, and a sense of adventure.
Violet Debenham fled her life in England, abandoned her place in society, and has been living as a stage magician in New York. She has now unexpectedly inherited an estate that will make her a wealthy woman and requires she return to England. Violet has always wanted to live a larger life than the one she was bred to lead. And she has zero problems courting scandal. If there is one thing Violet knows, it’s how to put on a good show. So when she learns about the murder and Maud’s determination to track down the killer and the artifact, Violet is happy to join in the hunt. It all seems like another lark and she is kind of fascinated to see where it all will lead. What Violet doesn’t expect is to find herself drawn to Maud, a sheltered woman who seems to be in way over her head.
Maud, in fact, has a lot more going for her than others might believe, and she takes charge with an authority. The women find themselves aided by a fellow traveling lord, a journalist, and a host of various ship staff (with the right bribes). Maud excels at playing the ingenue and using wide-eyed innocence to get others to go along and answer her questions. And Violet’s confident outrageousness means others don’t know quite what to do with her. The women find themselves getting closer to their quarry, both learning who is behind the murder, as well as what the artifact is and where it might be. But those who are seeking to steal the artifact are also getting closer to realizing what the women are up to and aren’t about the let things slip out of their hands. Even as Maud and Violet find themselves falling for one another aboard the ship, time may be running out before the killers turn the tables on them and their lives are on the line.
A Restless Truth is the second book in Freya Marske’s The Last Binding trilogy, following the excellent A Marvellous Light, which features Maud’s brother, Robin. This book has a new couple in Maud and Violet, but the overarching plot regarding the magical contract carries across the series. So while there is some basic background provided on the contract and the magical world building, I do think this is best read as part of the trilogy. I will admit, when I first learned this second book would feature Maud rather than more of Robin and Edwin, I was a little unsure, as I loved them and wanted more of their story. But I will say that I absolutely loved this book, as well as Maud and Violet together, and found this second novel to be a really wonderful installment in the series.
The story opens with excitement as Maud finds that Mrs. Navenby has been killed right in their room. Maud knows right away that it was foul play, and when she realizes that the killer has stolen all of Mrs. Navenby’s silver pieces (knowing the artifact is something made of silver), it is clear what they were after. Maud enlists Violet’s help, as well a few others, as they attempt to figure out who is behind the murders and recover the artifact. There is a nice locked-room mystery feel to things here, as it is clear the culprits are on the ship and they are all trapped there together for the time it takes to sail across the ocean. The list of possible suspects is near endless, as all they really know is that another magician is involved. It is even more complicated by the fact that no one knows what the artifact actually is, so finding it is near impossible. Even once they figure out who is behind it all and what the stolen object is, they have to figure out how to retrieve it while evading the killers. The ship proves to be an interesting setting, as we get great detail on what the voyage is like for those traveling first class, as well as bits about the others who would be making the journey. I did find things slowed a little with the case toward the middle, as it seemed like each step forward then required they wait around before making another move. But things get quite exciting by the end and it all comes together well. We get nice resolution to the shipboard murders, as well as progress on the larger series arc. There is some nice plot advancement in terms of learning more about the original contract and the women behind it. Often middle books in a trilogy can stagnate a little, but here it feels like the larger story really opens up in interesting ways.
I also really enjoyed the relationship between Maud and Violet. At first glance, the women seem so different. Violet is experienced and worldly; she doesn’t care about what society thinks of her and is confident acting outrageously, often just for the effect. Violet gave up her life and ran across the world to make something new of herself. She is also experienced sexually, with both men and women, and she isn’t afraid of a scandal. In comparison, Maud seems much more reserved, much more traditional. At first glance, she appears to be just the quiet, naive, ingenue that she often pretends to be. But there is a strength and determination to Maud to get what she wants and do what needs to be done. She may be sexually inexperienced, but she doesn’t shy away when she realizes she wants Violet. And while she may go about getting things done differently than Violet, Maud doesn’t shirk from taking charge when needed. The two are actually quite a bit more alike than they seem and such a fun match. Between the two of them, they could handle pretty much anything. I also liked how the women play off one another when they are faced with a tricky situation. They are so in tune with each other that they work together so seamlessly. As with the first book, this story really highlights the role of women in society, the expectations and the way they are often glossed over. I loved how this story really highlights both Maud and Violet and how capable and strong they are, as well as giving us a look into the original women who banded together to protect the contract. It feels very fitting that we learn about these older women in the same story where we see the younger ones taking a leading role.
Along with Maud and Violet, we get some fun side characters here aboard the ship. I particularly enjoyed the oh so dry and lordly Hawthorne, who seems equal parts amused and exasperated by the women. He is a character who was a foil for Robin and Edwin in book 1, but here he steps in to help out (somewhat begrudgingly) and I found him so much fun. I am not clear who will be featured in the third book, but I would love to hear more of Hawthorne’s story. There is a journalist who also plays an active role in the case, as well as some other side characters. I enjoyed the way this group worked together as somewhat strange bedfellows and found it a fun cast.
Overall, I really enjoyed this second installment in the series. It is a lovely romance, as well as a great continuation of the larger story. I am really looking forward to the final book and seeing how the magical adventure all resolves.