In 2023’s A Power Unbound, Book Three of the LAST BINDING trilogy, Freya Marske resolves the complex and tantalizing issues she set out in the first book. The riddle of the Last Contract is explained, magic (in Britain, at least) is changed forever, and arrogant, broody aristocrat Jack, Lord Hawthorn, gets a boyfriend.
This review may contain mild spoilers for the first two books.
At the end of A Restless Truth, our group of overmatched heroes had acquired one piece of the three sections of the Last Contract, and they knew for certain where the third piece was hidden, in a magical house, Spinet House, that Violet Debenham has inherited. When A Power Unbound picks up a few months later, Violet, her lover Maud and reluctant hero-assistant Lord Hawthorn have moved into Spinet House. They fend off attacks from Walter Courcey, Jack’s evil cousin George Bastoke, and others of the power-hungry cadre seeking the final piece of the contract. While they’re resting, they search the house themselves. Spinet House was possibly my favorite part of this book.
A Power Unbound has another thing going for it. Adelaide Morrisey, a nonmagical woman who works with Robin Blyth, plays a larger role in this story, and the book is all the better for it. While Edwin Courcey and Robin have settled into relationship bliss, Edwin’s fledgling magic, and Robin’s increasingly frequent visions, are becoming problems. But the “main” main character here is Jack, who has nursed a deep and terrible secret about magic and the death of his sister since he was seventeen. Jack, who became part of the team in the second book, struggles to overcome the vicious binding spell that hurts him whenever he tries to explain what happened to his twin Elsie. His memory is untouched though, and Jack knows better than anyone how horribly things can go wrong when one magician tries to draw out the magic of another.
The group has other helpers; Adelaide’s magical sister Kitty, and a plucky working-class reporter who writes under the name of Alan Ross. We meet a few other fascinating and possibly dangerous characters, among them Jack’s mother, Lady Cheetham, and a character who call themselves the Grimm. (Not to be confused with the television show.)
A Power Unbound follows the same jeopardy, extrication, worse jeopardy plot pattern that the other two books did, and while it makes for a predictable read, it works. The same holds true for the romantic relationships in the story. When almost-a-socialist Alan showed up in A Restless Truth, it was pretty clear who he would end up in bed with, and he does.
I was spellbound with the “plot” aspect of this book; on the edge of my chair when the bad-guys used legal chicanery to try to wrest Spinet House away from Violet; worried about the depth and frequency of Robin’s visions; intrigued and puzzled by the Grimm and their nearly incomprehensible letters; terrified for Maud when her attempt as a medium to contact a spirit goes terrifyingly wrong. I laughed out loud at the wit and humor throughout the book. The one thing that didn’t hold my interest in A Power Unbound was Jack’s and Alan’s by-rote romance.
Alan hates the aristocracy. In his case, as a working-class man struggling to support his parents and sisters, with his nose barely above the poverty line, it’s believable that he has no use for the class who was aggregated to itself all the wealth and power. In case we really don’t understand, though, the story gives us Alan’s sister Caroline, who was “in service” (a maid) impregnated by her rapist employer and cast out, disgraced and destitute.
Of course, Alan would hate everything Jack represents, and disapprove of his own physical infatuation and secret yearning for Jack’s touch. Of course, Jack would prove to have hidden depths, especially political ones, that “may surprise you.” All of this makes them a routine romantic couple, but they lack the depth and authenticity of Robin and Edwin, or the saucy fun of Violet and Maud. When Jack and Alan decide to take their relationship physical, they choose role play, based on Alan’s pornography (introduced, in fact, in Book One, although the anonymous author isn’t identified at that time).
Bafflingly, once they decide to role-play, arrogant aristocrat Jack chooses the role of… the arrogant aristocrat, while the scrappy working-class lad Alan decides to play the scrappy working class lad. Where’s the role play? It’s hard for me to grasp how the characters, or the writer, is exploring power differentials when there is no testing of those differentials. The dialogue and the action feels by-the-numbers, with little of the heat or vulnerability we saw with the couples in the earlier books. Alan and Jack are sexier out of bed, when they are being themselves, either problem-solving or arguing. To underline the lack of exploration even more, at the end of the book, when foundational things have been changed by our heroes, Jack’s offer of help to Alan’s sister Caroline is to suggest that his aristocrat Mom take her in as a servant. Where’s the reform in that alternative?
I do have to say that Alan’s secret identity as a successful pornographer, with a following and fans, was another favorite thing of mine. I loved the way he weaves through all three books without us knowing until this one.
Since I could skim the routine romance and stay focused on the action, this disappointment wasn’t a deal-breaker. I’d also point out that I am in the minority in this opinion; the book has plenty of four-and-five-star reviews on Goodreads and several extol the genius of the Jack/Alan pairing. Your mileage may vary. Mine did.
A Marvelous Light is far and away the best of this series, but I enjoyed all three books. I’ll seek out Marske’s next works, mostly for her sparkling prose, her lush, layered descriptions, and the sense of fun that flows from the books even when terrible things are happening. A Power Unbound resolves mysteries while setting up new ones, and is a pleasant read. Enjoy it.