In Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light, Sir Robert (Robin) Blyth goes to his first day of work with the British government with the expectation he will expend little effort, visit his club, and return to the comfortable London home he shares with his younger sister. He is shocked to find he is assigned a secretary and further dumbfounded to learn his first meeting is with special liaison Mr. Edwin Courcey, who informs him that his new role will involve reporting directly to Prime Minister Asquith! How is this possible? His appointment to the ‘Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints’ was meant to be assistant-level (or so he’s been told) until Edwin explains that his own role is as liaison to the ‘Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly’ and begins taking notes with a pen that can move along the page under its own power. Magic exists in England? And there are government offices to regulate it? Edwin is incredulous that Robin was hired with no magical abilities and their relationship begins with mutual mistrust and bickering. Their first meeting is not a smooth one but it is the spark which sets in motion the enemies-to-lovers element of the story in a most satisfying way.
Robin’s employment begins because his predecessor, Reginald Gatling, has been missing for a fortnight. Although Reggie was known for being eccentric, neither his sisters nor Edwin believe that he would leave without sending word of his whereabouts. The suspicion surrounding his disappearance combined with a back-alley attack which leaves unmagical Robin with a painful curse sets the two men on an adventure in Cambridgeshire to Edwin’s family home. They hope to find a way to release Robin from the curse in the extensive library there but arrive to find a large house party underway. Throughout the novel we have seen the story from alternating points of view providing a little window into each character’s emotions and back story, but when Edwin’s family is involved it is much easier to see how he became an introverted, quiet government liaison with a gift for research and compare his childhood with Robin’s. Their self-centered, boorish behavior also allows affection to grow between Edwin and Robin as one tries to protect the other during a weekend party which could only occur in a novel inhabited by those with magical powers – their entertainments are not ‘typical’ house party games and leave unmagical Robin in danger.
Marske doesn’t neglect the mystery aspect of her story, which is intertwined (literally) on Robin’s body as the curse slowly grows up his arm to his shoulder. We learn that poor Reggie’s body is discovered with damage inflicted by magical means and his death must be linked to the violent attack on Robin. Edwin’s unease increases and he feverishly continues his research in the library. They visit a local manor which leaves both men with more perplexing questions about magical contracts, a possible conspiracy, and an artifact with worldwide significance. As they puzzle through what they have found, it casts a shadow onto almost every magical personality we have met throughout the novel, other than the capable departmental secretary Miss Morrissey (who deserves a much bigger role, I am certain she will be important in one of the next books in this trilogy).
It’s almost a necessity that the author added a romantic storyline to this novel because if the she had focused on the mystery alone it might have been too stressful to read. Edwin and Robin are, despite their faults, characters a reader can’t help but love. If we were simple watching them run about England in an attempt to find the answers to this epic conundrum – albeit set in the English countryside with Tiffany lamps and William Morris wallpaper, yes – it would have been too much.
Read it for the historical setting, the sizzling romance, the magical world-building, or the chilling mystery; this is a book which will provide an entertaining escape just when we need it. Truly marvellous.