When Robin Blyth goes to work on Monday morning after being demoted to what he thinks is a dead-end civil service job, he doesn’t know that he’ll be reporting directly to the prime minister. He doesn’t know that his predecessor disappeared under mysterious circumstances a fortnight earlier. He certainly doesn’t know that mist-faced men with strange, deadly powers will soon be chasing after him, demanding answers he doesn’t have to a question he doesn’t understand.
In “A Marvellous Light,” author Freya Marske constructs a rich, magical world in Edwardian England and brings together two men — one magical, one not — who are desperately fighting their way through it.
The basic premise is this: Magicians live in secret among the unsuspecting people of England and the rest of the world, following strict rules to keep themselves hidden. Some magical families are old and prestigious and have fabled connections to an ancient myth of human magic represented by three magic items. To be born a non-magician in a magical family is a source of great shame, and there is much discussion over who is fit to marry whom based on their magical lineage. This description might sound familiar — I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that “A Marvellous Light” is no more than a “Harry Potter” prequel.
However, it is much more than that. Marske develops a magic system unlike anything I’ve read or seen. Instead of wands, magicians use “cradles” to create spells — yes, like the “Cat’s Cradle” string game that children play. By moving their fingers through various positions, tracing through the air the shapes into which the string would bend their fingers (or, if they lack sufficient innate power, actually using string), magicians create spells that can do any number of things. There is lore surrounding the origins of magic, explanations of the principles of cradling and forgotten and rediscovered forms of magic that no one living quite understands — everything needed to create an intriguing, well-developed magical system.
But this book isn’t just about magic (although a decent portion is dedicated to explaining its existence to Robin, who has just been made aware of its existence). Rather, this is a story of two closeted men in a time when being gay was still a crime and a story of the trauma that messy families can create.
Robin is the “perfect” son of two “perfect” late philanthropists whose reputation meant everything to them — even more than their own children. After they pass, Robin is left to pick up the pieces. His younger sister is headstrong and dead set against marrying for money or public image like their parents wanted. Robin desperately wants what’s best for her, but how could he possibly provide it when he’s left with an estate in tatters and a near-empty bank account?
Edwin Courcey, on the other hand, is a brilliant man but a weak magician. In a family of unusual magical talent, he grew up mocked, shunned and bullied by his siblings but loved dearly by a mother bedridden with “melancholy.” He has never in his life felt worthy of anything — not friendship, and certainly not trust or praise.
Through some bureaucratic mistake of the civil service that puts Robin in Edwin’s path, these two very different men find each other. In getting to know each other through magical and curse-ridden adventures, they also learn a good deal about themselves, their pasts and what their futures could hold if they could only manage to heal.
Unfortunately, this points to a major flaw of the novel: Somehow, the entire story takes place within the span of two weeks. While this isn’t inherently a problem, so much supposedly happens that this timeline makes little sense — Edwin and Robin meet a whole cast of characters, barely survive several near-death experiences and pursue quests to unravel a curse, a disappearance and a plan that might destroy the magical world. Further, Edwin is supposed to be so traumatized from childhood that he finds himself unwilling if not incapable of making friends, always remaining aloof so as to not care about anyone or allow himself to be cared for. Yet Edwin and Robin have had fifteen pages of sex and their first lovers’ quarrel by day nine. It initially reads like a slow burn, as if a few months have passed, and the pacing feels right when you’re immersed in the story. But when you take a step back, the amount of character development and action that has occurred does not align with the timeline.
I also would have liked to see deeper themes explored. Marske incorporates early 1900s-era sexism into the story, with women devalued and underestimated as people and workers, deemed incapable of learning complex cradling and rallying behind the suffragette movement. She explores homophobia, too: In “A Marvellous Light,” gay men must keep their relationships secret, and they know they can never truly be together in the way that straight people can.
However, there is much to be desired in her discussion (or, rather, lack of discussion) of immigration and colonization. Two of the primary characters are sisters whose grandparents immigrated from Punjab, India. They’re smart, capable and always prematurely judged by the English they encounter. But their grandparents immigrated to England in the mid-1800s, and Marske makes no reference to England’s colonization of India (which caused at least tens of millions and potentially as many as 1.8 billion deaths). In a story that intends to explore difficult subjects, it’s a glaring omission to not so much as mention colonization, which did not end in India until 40 years after this story takes place.
Similarly, class is hardly discussed, except in reference to how Robin’s rank as a baronet (a hereditary title given by the British Crown) comes in handy. At one point, Robin ponders whether it is selfish to be angry at his parents for giving so much to charity that there’s no money left for him and his sister. At another, Edwin notices that Robin is working an unprestigious job below his social station (indicating financial troubles in a family that should be able to live off its wealth). That is as much discussion of class hierarchies or wealth inequality as we get. There are no major characters that are not wealthy, and countless servants play only supporting roles, tending to the wealthy main characters’ needs.
“A Marvellous Light” is a fun read filled with beautiful prose, a dangerous quest, a wonderfully unique system of magic, engaging main characters and complex relationships. However, it is not without problems. I’m just going to cross my fingers that the sequel addresses them.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.