Book: A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1)
Author: Freya Marske
Narrator: David Thorpe
Bechdel Test: FAIL-Fails by default as both POV characters are male and no conversations happen without either of them present.
Content Warnings: Graphic sexual content, bullying, violence, emotional abuse, death, torture, murder, homophobia, blood, misogyny, kidnapping, injury/injury detail, classism, fire/fire injury, chronic illness, physical abuse, sexism, child abuse, confinement, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, death of parents, outing, colonisation
I was first attracted to this book by its glorious cover (see above) and thought I just had to read something with a cover that pretty (though ironically I read it on audiobook so don’t actually own said cover!) and then the synopsis confirmed it was definitely something I wanted to read: gay magicians in the Edwardian era? Yes please! Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations I had from the cover and synopsis: whilst I did love said gay magicians (well one magician and one non-magician shoved into the magical world), the plot was incredibly slow and the romance overtook the actual plot points. It also had super graphic sex scenes that I wasn’t expecting so was a little taken aback by! Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.
Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it–not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.
Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles–and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.
I’ll start with the characters, since they were really what kept me engaged with this book when the pacing wasn’t great. I found both Edwin and Robin loveable, but in different ways. I really felt for Edwin, yes he was prickly and a little cold, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is a defence mechanism he has built up to deal with his awful family, and I was charmed quite quickly by his intelligence and the clear softer side that he hides underneath the cold exterior. Also it’s kind of impossible not to love a character who has come up with his own library classification system! Robin is your classic jock himbo, incredibly sweet and loyal and very charming, so naturally I found myself rooting for him quite easily too.
I’ve seen mixed reviews about the narrator, but I actually quite enjoyed David Thorpe’s performance. I did find however, as I have done with many male narrators, that his female voices could have used some improvement and a white guy putting on an Indian accent for the Punjabi characters did seem a little racist.
I did like the magic system, I thought it was really inventive. It’s based around the children’s game, Cat’s Cradle, with different “cradles” used for different spells and I just thought that was a really fun idea and not something that I’d ever seen in fantasy before. The only drawback was obviously because I listened to this on audio, I couldn’t really understand what the cradles were meant to look like. I hope the physical book had illustrations of what the cradles looked like because I definitely felt like I could have used that! I also felt like the magic system could have been expanded on more, we learn the basics but I felt like there was so much more to know, especially since it’s hinted that there is more to magic than what we see the characters do.
I also really appreciated having a main character who was great at theory but not so good at the practical stuff, so often in fantasy books, the MC is always the super powered one, so it was interesting that Marske took a different stance here.
The female characters felt really underserved throughout the book, Marske is clearly trying to make feminist points, but it doesn’t really work when all the female characters are so underdeveloped. I would have especially loved to see more of Ms Morrissey and her sister, they were so much fun! On that point, it seems mad that you can create a whole magical world but still have sexism, racism and homophobia? Okay it’s set in the Edwardian era, but you’ve added magic, you can take out the bad stuff too! I found it so ridiculous that the female magicians weren’t expected to be able to do powerful magic, so they’re never even taught!
I like Edwin and Robin’s romance, I did think they had good chemistry and were well-suited to each other. However, as is so often my problem with romance plots in fantasy, it definitely overtook the main plot for a significant portion of the book. This is fine if you like romance, but I tend to prefer romance in small doses (particularly when the primary genre of the book is not advertised as romance!) and there was a much bigger plot at play, so it frustrated me that we took a detour into Robin and Edwin’s sex lives when the whole magical world was supposedly at stake!
I personally could have done without the lengthy sex scenes, I will admit that this is a personal thing of mine, I just find sex scenes uncomfortable to read, and even more so to listen to. It’s fair enough to have some, I wouldn’t expect all books to never have sex scenes just because I personally don’t like reading them but here they did feel overly long and like a detour from the actual plot of the book. The sex scenes were also much more explicit that I’m used to and I wished I’d been warned of that beforehand! On the upside however, all of the sex scenes were very consent focused, which I really loved. I also really cringed at some of the words the author used for penis, like prick and cock, just call it what is (and I could have definitely done without the graphic descriptions of pre-ejaculate!).
I did like the Edwardian setting, it’s not an era that is seen enough in historical fiction but I do think it could have been developed more, I didn’t really feel like there were many period details.
The writing was nice enough, but a little overly descriptive in some places and there was a weird clash between the prose which was obviously trying to fit with the time period, and the dialogue which felt a lot more modern. I honestly don’t mind if your historical fiction has anachronistic language or the style doesn’t quite fit with the time period, but pick one and stick with it!
And then we come to my biggest problem of the book, yes we’re back to our old friend: PACING. This book is incredibly slow paced, it took ages to get going and then we kind of paused for a while so that Robin and Edwin could have sexy times and then the ending felt somewhat rushed. It was very uneven the whole way through, and it did feel like the author lost focus on her main plot about halfway through. Had the build-up been quicker and we hadn’t taken such a detour into Edwin and Robin’s sexy times, I think the pacing would have been much better. It also felt a lot longer than it was, it’s a less than 400 page book and yet it felt like it could have been 500+ pages. The chapters were also a little overly long for me.
The opening chapter also really added nothing to the story, there was no reason why we needed to see what happened to Reggie Gatling before the characters found out, and it would have made far more sense to be introduced to Robin or Edwin first than a character whose role in the plot is basically over before it even starts.
There’s a real lack of urgency to the story as well, considering that Robin is under a potentially deadly curse for a significant portion of the book, it didn’t feel like they were particularly worried about dealing with it, rather more time was spent focused on playing about on boats and the protagonists’ sexy times! It just felt like the author’s priorities were not where mine were!
The side characters weren’t particularly well fleshed out either, I could hardly differentiate between Edwin’s family & their friends because they all sounded so similar. The main villain in the book, whilst their identity did make sense when it was revealed, I felt it could have all been foreshadowed a lot more. It also just felt like starting in the wrong place, like we’d just been thrown right into the middle of things, it would have made much more sense to start with Robin and to learn about the world as he does.
I found Sutton Cottage really cool, it’s basically like this sentient house and I wish we’d got to spend more time there as it was my favourite setting in the book. I hope we find out more about it in the next one!
Robin and Maud had a really nice sibling bond, it was a shame we didn’t get to see more of them together, I hope that we do in subsequent books.
Marske is kind of terrible at describing her characters as well, I realised about halfway through the book that I really had no idea what anyone looked like. Now granted, I don’t visualise things when I read, so it’s not like I see characters’ faces in my head, but that means it’s even more important that I at least have some written description to go off, if you’re not describing your characters for me, I’m not like other readers who might build their own picture in their heads, I will just think that they are floating faceless blobs!
There’s meant to be a mystery but Markse kind of loses focus on that, so it felt like we really didn’t have many clues to solve as to who the villain was and what they wanted, when I’m reading something that suggests the characters will have a mystery solve, I expect to be given some clues as to who the villain might be, so that I can try and solve it alongside the character.
The representation in the book was okay, our two main characters are gay men, and then we do have a couple of POC side characters, though the world is still ultimately very, very white.
Overall, I thought this book had decent potential as a first in a trilogy, I liked the characters and thought the magic system was interesting. However, everything could have used a lot more development and it felt like the author prioritised the romance over absolutely everything else in the book, which meant that for me personally, it felt like the plot was lacking. The pacing also needed some real work. I liked it enough that I will probably read the sequel, but I’m not going in with as high expectations. I’m also confused that the sequel seems to be focusing on Robin’s sister Maud rather than Robin so I don’t quite understand how the story from this book is going to be continued. This worries me slightly as there were a lot of loose threads left hanging, but I am excited to see the women hopefully get a bit more focus in the next book!
My Rating: 3.5/5
My next review will be of The River Silver: Tales From The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, this is a series of short stories from the Daevabad world which I’m currently reading, and really enjoying.