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'A Marvellous Light' infuses magic and adventures into 19th century England

<em>A Marvellous Light</em> by Freya Marske
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Loveable characters are sure to enchant in Freya Marske's Edwardian romance of manners and magic — A Marvellous Light.

Robin, Sir Robert Blyth if you're being formal, has no idea what he's supposed to be doing. He has a new job with the Home Office that comes with a desk and a secretary, but no clue as to what it actually entails. Enter Mr. Edwin Courcey, a gentleman claiming to be Robin's liaison to the minister, who arrives for a meeting with Robin's predecessor and is very surprised to find Robin instead.

This is because Edwin is no ordinary liaison. He's a magician, and together, he and Robin are meant to monitor England's secret society of magic users and ensure that their activities go undetected by the masses. But if they're going to work together, Edwin will to have to explain a lot to Robin, who has no idea magic exists until Edwin dazzles him with a demonstration.

Working together will soon be a matter of life and death. When Robin is roughed up and placed under a life-threatening curse, they begin to suspect that his predecessor's disappearance is much more sinister than it initially seemed. Desperate to find some way to break the curse, Edwin takes Robin home to his difficult, magical family to see if they can find a way to save him and unmask the villains threatening the law and order of magic in England.

Edwin assumes that once things are sorted, he will charm Robin into forgetting everything that he's learned about magic. And Robin assumes that once the curse is lifted, he can find some way to get his life back on the practical track he's always felt obliged to take.

The thing that neither of them could have predicted was that they would fall in love.

This is truly a scrumptious treat of a book, like a fancy tea all laid out with silver spoons and floral-painted cups and one of those tiered stands for the little cakes and crustless sandwiches. The 19th century historical fantasy wherein magic is a layer over the already complicated strata of society is a fairly common genre, from Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey series to the more recent The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk, among many others. And I'm pretty much guaranteed to enjoy them all. Give me a slow burn romance and a retreat to a country house and I'm a happy reader. That said, it can be hard to make the genre feel fresh, and that is where A Marvellous Light pleasantly surprised me.

First and foremost, it is a romance, with Robin and Edwin's dawning affection for each other stealing the show from the mystery plot (which is also very well deployed). They are not uncommon character types — Robin is the very moral, well meaning sporty guy, and Edwin is the prickly nerd with his nose in a book. But the depictions of them here run deeper than the surface, and we get to see the way that they became their respective types unpacked by delving into their families and histories. It's so lovely once they get out of their own way and truly see each other. And when I say it's a romance, I do mean it — the sex scenes are spicy and don't fade to black.

The magic is also quite charmingly depicted, as magicians use a technique that resembles playing cat's cradle to weave power into spells. Edwin, who is not a very powerful magician, uses actual string to strengthen his abilities — just one of the many endearing details that make this worldbuilding feel lived-in. Houses also play an almost character-like role in the story, ensuring this will appeal to readers who enjoy that trope. One even has a semi-sentient hedge maze!

And lest it seem like there aren't any women about, there are some really delightful supporting characters like Robin's outspoken secretary, Miss Morrissey, as well as both Robin's and Edwin's sisters, who shine very brightly in their roles. I do wish that Miss Morrissey in particular got even more time with us on the page — I would happily read an entire book devoted to her.

I had a lot of fun reading this and would happily return to Marske's magic-infused England for more adventures with Robin, Edwin and their friends and relations. It's a charming, cozy read that's sure to delight.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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Caitlyn Paxson
[Copyright 2024 NPR]