Regency era gets so much love, pun intended, when it comes to romance and reimagined history. The Victorians get all the credit for every beautiful—and weirdly oppressive—thing from the turn of the century. But in A Marvellous Light, author Freya Marske pours glamor, manners, magic, and more than a little longing into the Edwardian era. It’s as if Downton Abbey became exciting, Harry Potter stopped being twenty kinds of -phobic, and together they had a beautiful little baby that is very British and very queer.
After his predecessor vanishes under mysterious circumstances, Robin Blythe finds himself given a bureaucratic post in an office he’s never heard of nor understands. The job is a consequence of his once-illustrious, if now somewhat tarnished, family pedigree, and he takes it without question while trying to balance the books of the estate he’s just inherited. He gets a shocking primer in his actual duties—to act as a liaison between the world inhabited by most of England and the fraction who practice magic and are bound by its particular rules and laws—with the appearance of Edwin Courcey, who is none too pleased with providing said education.
Both agree the best course of action is to simply explain to the powers that be that Robin is unqualified for the job and that someone more familiar with the goings-on of magic should replace him as soon as possible. Before that can happen, though, Robin is cursed with a spell that causes immense pain seemingly at random—and appears to have also given him an accidental look into his attackers’ plans. Edwin, whose magical expertise is more theoretical than practical, takes Robin to his family estate in hopes that one of his more-powerful siblings can break the curse, and allow Edwin to try to discover the attackers’ motives through studying in his family’s extensive library. But as Robin and Edwin gain clues into the old liaison’s disappearance and Robin’s subsequent curse, they realize this plot runs far deeper than they could imagine—as does their growing feelings for the other.
A Marvellous Light does, at times, have to do battle against the somewhat stuffy vibe inherent with any work transporting readers to this era. This stuffiness is typically good for longing and mere brushes of hands becoming smoldering contact due to their forbidden nature, and a lesser book would accept and lean into that double-edged sword. A Marvellous Light, however, needs no such limitation or contrived setup—even for the love that dare not speak its name—to keep the pages turning.
The underground system of magical use and governance simmering just beneath the surface of the ordinary world (mostly hinted at here and glimpsed only briefly, though we are promised at least a sequel) gives vibes like the first discovery of the magical world in the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts series, or, less problematically, A Master of Djinn. Robin is our outsider into that world, while Edwin, a younger child poorly respected by his family, is an outsider to the world of titles and bureaucratic tap-dancing, allowing them to be equally matched in their own ways. Which means, when the sparks start flying, there’s no uncomfortable power dynamics to get in the way of either their enjoyment or ours.
Although A Marvellous Light is a book about magic, there is pure chemistry between Robin and Edwin. It’s one thing to be told two characters will fall in love, or even to see the giant neon signs from the author about the one true pair of their work. It’s quite another to feel the pull strengthen between two characters. Making interest grow without slowing down the plot or keeping the eventual payoff from all that slow-burning interest from feeling contrived is a difficult balance, but one Marske made look easy. By the time the book lets the gloves come off, so to speak, it feels like release for the characters and reader alike.
A brief note about that eventual moment: this book is for adult audiences, and although the subject matter would definitely make my teenage self pick it up, the love scenes are such that this book should not cross over to those younger readers. They’re tasteful and very well written, but also on the graphic side.
Like the love story, the mystery is also well paced, dropping just enough tantalizing clues to keep the plot moving forward, even if we know as little about the magical world as Robin does. Because of that, it is less a fictional mystery you as the reader are trying to solve in conjunction with the characters, and more one you’re watching as you come along for the ride. If you want to play armchair detective as you read, A Marvellous Light may not be the mystery for you. That said, this book should only be the first in its series, and I’m curious about whether Robin—and we—will take more of an active role in solving the case in future installments. In the meantime, I’ll be pretending my calligraphy is good and looking very dubiously at lemonade spiked with home-grown mint, and counting down the days to step into this magical English countryside once again.