by Freya Marske
Series: The Last Binding #1
Publication Date: November 2, 2021
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Red White & Royal Blue meets Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in debut author Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light, featuring an Edwardian England full of magic, contracts, and conspiracies.
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 had high expectations for this book, and wow, did this book deliver! I think a lot of comparisons can be made to Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series: the unusual historical setting (Edwardian England in this case), the magical secret society, the opposites-attract m/m romantic pairing. Considering how much I adored that series, this was an absolute homerun for me.
Robin’s first day of work in a (supposedly) relatively unimportant civil service position takes an unexpected turn when a man bursts in demanding to know where his predecessor is. Even more confusing, this man, Edwin, insists that magic is real, and that Robin’s job is supposed to be investigating reports of magical activity by those not in the know. It becomes even worse when he’s attacked and cursed by a group of men who seem to think Robin knows more than he does. Without anyone else to turn to, Robin asks Edwin for help, and before he knows it he’s being whisked off to Edwin’s family’s country manor to research how to remove it. The stakes are further raised when they figure out what Robin’s attackers are looking for. With Robin’s life – and England’s safety – on the line, can two very different men navigate their attraction and a shadowy group to save themselves?
“I suggest a daring stealth adventure, and you have to ruin it by telling me it’s going to involve books.”
Edwin has very little magic, so he dismissed by the majority of his family and bullied especially by his older brother. Well aware of his (supposed) inferiority, he made up for it by folding in on himself and committing to his own research, creating new spells and researching better ways of doing existing ones. The only place Edwin is truly comfortable is surrounded by books, and that’s where his thoughtful, dedicated nature truly shines. His complete opposite, Robin is sporty and handsome, the perfect minor lordling, or as Edwin calls him, “the idiotic flower of English manhood.” Robin is everything Edwin has learned to despise. Robin knows he’s not clever – he much preferred playing cricket to studying – but he admires it in Edwin, and frankly can’t understand why his family doesn’t appreciate him. And Robin’s not just all sportsmanship and good breading. After growing up surrounded by his wealthy parents’ purchases, Robin has something of an eye for art, and his enthusiasm for Tiffany lamps and Morris wallpaper was, frankly, adorable. Robin’s parents were only interested in their children as collateral to be used – Robin, of course, would go into civil service so that they could use him as another example of something they’d donated to the British Empire. It’s left him hungry for love and afraid of being used.
“I am nothing like you, and yet I feel more myself with you.”
Put the two of them together and what you get is a whole lot of slow-burn chemistry. With Edwardian English society being what it is, admitting they’re both attracted to men is something that’s fraught with danger. The way they tiptoe around each other, while simultaneously pining for the other person, was so sweet. Edwin comes off as cold and prickly, and that’s certainly how Robin initially viewed him, but he quickly reevaluates that once he sees how quickly Edwin offers to help him. And sure, some of that is certainly curiosity about the particular curse used, but Edwin’s outer shell hides a kind, curious man. That shell exists to keep him safe from ridicule (or worse) from others, and even with Robin he hesitates to drop it too much. Robin, for his part, is afraid of being used and discarded, of being someone who’s not worth fighting for.
“I’ll settle for knowing all the things I want to know,” Edwin said quietly. “When and how I need to know them.”
The world building and magical system are fascinating. Sure, it’s the common “hidden magical society” trope, but it’s set in Edwardian England. Plus the magic system, based on the children’s game of cat’s cradle and magical synergies, felt completely original while also making complete sense. There’s bits about historical magic, as well as a few asides about non-English magic usage (complete with requisite colonialism of course). While parts of the story are set in London, a good chunk of it actually takes place in the countryside. While I was initially a bit disappointed (because, c’mon, magical London), there’s an enchanted library, a magic-hating hedge maze, and an absolutely delightful magical country manor.
“And we are but feeble women,” said Miss Morrissey. “Woe.”
Besides the class distinctions between magical and unmagical, the author also pokes a bit of fun at the misogynistic way women are treated through the female characters. My favorite way this worked can’t be talked about for spoiler reasons, but my personal favorite character was Miss Adelaide Morrissey, Robin’s secretary, who’s been at the position for years and frankly pretty much runs the office herself. She and her sister, Mrs. Kitty Kaur, end up roped in to the situation, and they were just plain lovely characters in a book that had a lot of jerk ones. I hope they both play a bigger part in the next books!
Because there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series. Overall, 4.5 stars, and I’d definitely recommend it to paranormal historical romance fans, especially those of Allie Therin’s.
Content notes: View Spoiler »violence (including murder), period typical homophobia, character forcefully outed to other character, misogyny, classism, colonialism, bullying, toxic family, parental death (before book starts), ill parent, ableism « Hide Spoiler