A review by Konstantin Nicholas Rega.
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
tordotcom / pp. 384 / $27.99
To the uninitiated, “Fantasy” might mean a shouty man in furry underpants swinging a sword (He-Man in all his glory). This was my pitiful understanding of the genre for years. But with shows like She-Ra (2018) and authors like V. E. Schwab, there’s been a change in who’s being focused on—departing from narratives dominated by male heroes like in Eragon or Dune—though there’s nothing wrong with them. A whole slew of queer characters and female heroes are coming into existence, telling their tales of triumph as well as exploring their emotions and identities. Australian novelist Freya Marske’s debut novel, A Marvellous Light continues the current trend of voicing nontraditional, queer narratives in the Fantasy genre.
Though some readers might not be into romances, Marske’s work cuts through the sappy and saccharin scenes that might inhibit similar stories by situating Edwin Courcey and Sir Robin Blyth (our dashing duo) in a magical, Edwardian world. Are there love scenes? Hell yeah. But they are not thrown in haphazardly; rather, they serve to highlight the pair’s emotional chronology. Robin is charming, suave, magicless, posh, one of the lads; Edwin (dear, sweet Edwin) is pale, lank, barely a magician of consequence, and a bookworm of the highest order. Sparks don’t fly when the two first meet—though a chilly, magically-created snowflake does. Yet, as the song goes, you can’t hurry love. No, it takes about 100 pages or so.
When Robin is cursed by a mysterious magician who believes he knows the location of a certain powerful item, he’s forced to ask Edwin for help. However, having just met Edwin and having just been told of magic’s existence at his new position at the Home Office, Sir Blyth is wary—not only because his predecessor has suddenly disappeared, but because magic has caused him more pain than pleasure thus far.
Magic is a tricky thing to handle, especially for characters like poor Edwin—who’s limited in conjuring abilities (though in knowledge, he is quite the wiz). Yet, Marske creates a believable world of magicians and wonders. No wands needed here. The technique Marske adopts is called “cradling” where the castor moves his fingers about (perhaps akin to sign language) and magic flows through. However, there is a limit to each magicians’ amount of power, and once used up, they must recharge. This factor comes up in the book like a nagging and niggling bell: you’d better remember it as the plot progresses.
Like any good society thinking it knows what’s best, the magical world is a hierarchy—those with the most power on the top. In the Courcey family, this is prominently clear. Edwin (who struggles with even using a beginner’s cradling string) is on the lowest rung, whereas his brother, Walter, is as close to the top as Merlin. Ring-a-ding-ding! Here, Marske delves into Edwin’s (or “Win” as his family teasingly calls him) psyche. Why is he such a loner, a man who spends his time with books and away from the family estate of Penhallick? Simple: Walt’s a bully. And like all bullies, magical or not, he takes pleasure in showing (more like shoving) his power, physically and verbally. Win’s childhood trauma holds great significance; it not only tells the reader why he acts like he does at the beginning, but it allows the narrative to move forward, by tying in Sir Blyth’s sympathy as the two grow closer and work to stop the curse as it inches, painfully across Robin’s arms.
It’s the good Sir who falls first—in love, not defeat that is. Robin sees how Edwin’s treated by his sister and brother (their jokes and hurtful games). Later, however, he experiences Edwin without his walls, his layers of stoicism and emotional distance used in self-defense, self-preservation—like when they are in the Penhallick library together. To the magicless man, Edwin is, well, magical. “A delicate, turbulent, Turner-sketch attractiveness.”
With other queer works like Emily Tesh’s fantastic novella, Silver in the Wood, the attraction between the two protagonists is subtle, light, and shy. Tesh, for example, is much more delicate in depicting the care, the friendship, the love that blossoms as the pages unfold. There are no four-page sex scenes. A gentle kiss, a lingering look maybe. That side of queer relationships is as important to depict as much as the carnal side. If A Marvellous Light lacks anything, it is this. Of course, we also have to consider that Markse’s book is set during the era that saw Oscar Wilde imprisoned for “gross indecency” (which is even mentioned at one point). This, one supposes, is to heighten the tension surrounding what the twosome gets up to (three times to be exact, all very colorfully depicted). There are tender moments as when the two are in the library or in the car going off to investigate Robin’s curse by visiting Sutton Cottage. But light cast here by Marske is more a roaring fire than a tender candle. Love is ferocious; it is what keeps Robin and Edwin together, strengthening both of them equally as they explore their feelings and incoming magical threats.
All things considered, A Marvellous Light is a fun and invigorating read. Full of magic, mayhem, and male-male love. Like Schwab and Tesh, Freya Marske explores two male characters as they navigate a fantastic (and dangerous) world of magic. They laugh, they love, they live. Robin’s and Edwin’s journey isn’t over yet. A sequel glows on the horizon. But here, a queer relationship stays strong and hints at hope for something more than just secret sex. A Marvellous Light flavors a genre that’s been over seasoned with the hero rescuing damsel trope. Marske gives voice to a charming and unexpected narrative that will leave its impression in the heart and in the canon.
Read more about the author Konstantin Nicholas Rega HERE.