What struck me first about A Marvelous Light, (2022), Book One of Freya Marske’s THE LAST BINDING trilogy, was the style and narrative tone. Set in an alternate world in the last decade of the 19th century, A Marvelous Light could have featured Dorothy Sayers’s aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, if Wimsey were a magician and had sex with men. The descriptions and the dialogue sparkle, and the book seems inhabited with real (if, in many cases, unpleasant) people, of all walks of life. The magic is fun too.
Robert Blyth, who goes by Robin, is an aristocratic orphan who has been shuffled into a dead-end Civil Service job by someone seeking revenge on Robin’s (now dead) parents. On Robin’s first day, he meets the indomitable Adeliade Morrisey, his secretary, and learns that the position was vacant because his predecessor, Reginald, has vanished. Expecting a dull career to shuffling papers, in short order Robin is confronted with a defensive young man, Edwin Courcey, who tells Robin his role is to report regularly to the Home Secretary on the progress of magic and the magical in the kingdom—and introduces Robin to actual magic.
Robin has no time to feel bewildered or build up a good adversarial attitude toward the supercilious and bookish Edwin, because in almost no time he has been abducted and had a runic curse put on his arm. It causes excruciating pain, and will ultimately kill him, unless he finds the “contract” his predecessor was threatened into searching for. Then he, Edwin and Adelaide learn that Reginald has been murdered.
Edwin has a chip on his shoulder and an instinctive dislike of bluff, sexy, handsome aristocrats like that amiable blockhead Robin, but he can’t deny the man help once he’s been cursed. And Edwin does not think about Robin in any other way except a colleague and a victim. No, he most certainly does not. Edwin is the youngest and least magical of a powerful magical family from the bourgeoisie. He was the brunt of family jokes and the victim of his bullying older brother, Walter. In defense, Edwin set out to learn everything he could about magic. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the field.
The “contract” they’ve been forced to search for is no ordinary document, in fact, it’s not a document at all. The contract was made centuries earlier between the fae and mortal magicians, and gives mortal magicians access to their power. The actual Last Contract (if it even exists) has been lost for a long time. Some magicians believe that the holder of it would be able to draw on anyone’s magic, without their consent.
Robin is impoverished due to the lavish and self-indulgent lifestyle of his self-centered parents, and struggling to make ends meet and provide for his strong-willed younger sister Maud. Absorbing the reality of magic is one thing; a deadly runic curse that has also brought on powerful and confusing visions is quite another. Locating the Last Contract seems impossible. Even though he feels like Edwin looks down on him, and for no reason, Robin has no choice but to accept the magician’s help.
Along with the mystery of the Last Contact, and the ramifications to magic, the ember of mutual attraction is steadily glowing on these pages. Robin and Edwin both face risk in their society as men who love men, but this relationship and the adversaries-to-lovers trajectory is driven much more by their personalities, which Marske develops beautifully. Along the way she introduces the characters who will appear in the later books. Edwin seeks the help of the bitter, callous Lord Hawthorn, who cruelly refuses to help even though he understands the curse is killing Robin. Edwin’s powerful magical family are awful, and convincingly so. In contrast, Maud, who wants to go to Cambridge and is determined to do good in the world, is a quirky breath of fresh air. Adelaide and her magical sister are tough, loyal, no-nonsense helpers who, as Indian-Anglo women, understand what it means to be an outsider.
The mystery is compelling, the magics multilayered and intriguing.
Once Edwin and Robin admit their feelings for each other, there are several explicit sex scenes. This is not everyone’s cup of tea. I include it so you can make up your own mind about reading the book, and the trilogy. (Nothing says you can’t skim.)
I was delighted with these characters. Edwin gradually lets down his fiercely self-protective guard—not only about sexual intimacy, but about his troubled relationship with magic. Robin, non-magical and athletic, is far from a doofus, even if certain people stereotype him that way. Being raised by a pair of self-centered, indulgent hypocrites taught him to look behind face value, and several times, magical players underestimate him because he paid attention to what they did, not what they said. The two men’s complimentary skill sets make them delightful detectives.
This story ends with an expansion of our understanding of magic, and a solid resolution. It was a charming read and sent me off immediately to buy the sequel, A Restless Truth.