2022’s A Restless Truth is the second book in Freya Marske’s queer magical alternate history series THE LAST BINDING. Book One, A Marvelous Light, had the sparkling prose and deep characterization of a Dorothy Sayers novel. This one is marginally more madcap, as if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were characters in a comedy on a transatlantic ocean liner—if they were both women and there was magic and there wasn’t a lot of dancing.
This review discusses events from A Marvelous Light, so there may be spoilers for that book.
In Book One, Maud Blyth learned that magic existed in her previously ordered world, and that her brother Robin was assigned to report on it to the Home Office. Along with Robin’s magical lover Edwin, she learned about the Last Contract, a spell between the fae and the mortals. Long ago, the actual contract vanished. A group of human magicians seeks it out, believing that with control of it they can strip magic from everyone else and hoard it themselves. Robin and Edwin, after great personal risk, uncovered a group of four woman calling themselves the Forsythia Society. These magical but untrained women (woman aren’t encouraged to study magic) split the contract into three pieces, and three of the four each safeguarded a piece.
Armed with this knowledge, Maud went to America to persuade one of the women to return to Britain and give her piece of the contract to Robin and Edwin. On the luxury liner Frolic, which is sailing back to the UK, the woman, Elizabeth Navenby, is murdered in her stateroom, leaving a non-magical and untrained Maud to find and protect the piece of the contract, and uncover the killer.
Maud may be non-magical. She is definitely indomitable. Raised by a pair of charming hypocrites who cared only for the adulation of the public, she is adept at recognizing lies. She is also adept at creating false impressions through misdirection and omission, without actually lying herself. More importantly, as the story continues, Maud wants to be a genuine force for good in the world. Her moral code, while annoying to other characters, never deserts her.
Her first suspect for the murderer and would-be thief is the dazzling and scandalous Violet Debenham, the daughter of an aristocratic family who disgraced herself and fled to America and a life on the stage. Miss Debenham has inherited a fortune from a distant relative and is being dragged home by a questionable aunt and cousin, although Miss Debenham herself disputes that definition:
“Clarence, you couldn’t drag a kitten out of a bag,” said Miss Debenham. “The money did the dragging.”
Fixating on the beautiful, intriguing Miss Debenham, Maud soon interrupts the heiress in flagrante with the obnoxious Lord Hawthorn, who is also on the ship. Hawthorn was briefly introduced in the first book, originally portrayed as a jaded reprobate. This book tries to rehabilitate him or at least let the reader see different facets of his personality. Since he knows about the Last Contract, Maud fills in both scandalous artistos, and tries to enlist their aid. She succeeds with Violet, but Hawthorne only grudgingly agrees to help. They know the Contract is a piece of silver, and they know the thief took Miss Navenby’s silver. To their consternation, a clever thief has stolen silver and other jewels from several first-class passengers. And so many upper-class people are so unpleasant that the suspect list grows instead of shrinking.
A Restless Truth follows the pattern of A Marvelous Light, the revelations and setbacks happening at the same pace. Maud and Violet fight their attraction to each other but ultimately embrace it and each other. Maud discovers something startling about herself (just like her brother) without warning, and it’s a game changer (just like her brother). Characters appear who will play roles in the third book, most notably a working-class reporter who writes under the name of Alan Ross. He was baptized Cesare Alanzo Rossi, and has a big chip on his shoulder about the upper class, their privilege and their excesses, so it’s clear to see who his love interest will be.
A Restless Truth has more hi-jinks than the first book, and the inclusion of a menagerie onboard the ocean liner adds to the fun. Strangely, even though the page count is shorter than the first book, this felt longer, and slower, to me. In the first book, I was with Robin, learning about wonders. Here, most of the magical basics are known. Our quartet of spies—Maud, Violet, Lord Hawthorn and Ross—spends a lot of time stuck in each other’s staterooms, which slowed down the story too.
For whatever reason, the romance between Violet and Maud, while believable enough, never engaged me the way Edwin and Robin did. I could easily see it as a mere shipboard fling. The attempts to turn Lord Hawthorn into someone layered, more heroic, fell short. The person who can always step in with his money and his family name when the others get into trouble is usually less interesting, and for plot reasons, Hawthorn can’t divulge the terrible family secret that could make him sympathetic. Fortunately, Marske did find a way to make Hawthorn interesting. He is often the butt of the humor, and he knows it. His own sense of humor, dry and world-weary, is well-delivered. One of my favorite scenes is when, since they’re all stuck in a stateroom, Violet and Ross decide to read aloud from some of the pornography Ross sells as a sideline. They genderswap the parts and read, tantalizingly, up to the moment when a naked minotaur appears on the scene, then both turn and stare meaningfully at Lord Hawthorn. Now that was funny.
In spite of some moments of slowness, the plot is exciting. The backstory of the Contract and the Forsythia Society is fascinating, and the story kept me guessing. Mostly, I enjoyed Maud, and her view of her unusual world. This is a solid follow-up to an original story and delivers lots of fun along the way.