Rough Textures and Small Enjoyments: Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light

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One of my most memorable reading experiences of last year came courtesy of Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light. It’s a fantasy romance with a mystery plot and magical families and enchanted estates, which is not usually my jam. But I was truly impressed with how the author layered together a slow burn romance with a gently-building suspense plot, and doled out information about an entire magical system without info-dumping. And part of what made all this work was the way the book is written. The prose has so much of its own rhythm that propels the reader just as much as the romance or the mystery or the magic. 

Here’s the cover and blurb: 

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.

Cover image, blurb and CWs from the author’s website.

I’m writing about this book after a recent re-read. One of the things I love about re-reading is that knowing where the plot is going can make you read differently at the beginning. Case in point: this time around, a passage in the third chapter jumped out at me: 

Edwin ran his eyes twice more over the page and then when the words refused to line themselves up and be seen, replaced the sweep of his sight with that of a fingertip, finding pleasure in the tiny roughness of the paper. Edwin’s collection of small enjoyments was carefully cultivated. When he exhaled his worry he imagined it going up in the snap of the fire. He thought about the meticulous cogs of the Gatling’s clock, and the particular hazel of Sir Robert Blyth’s eyes. 

In the gaps between small things, Edwin could feel his quiescent magic like a single drop of blood in a bucket of water: more obvious than it deserved to be, given its volume. He could breathe into the knots in the back of his neck. And he could feel out the edges of the aching, yearning space in his life that no amount of quiet and no number of words had yet been able to fill. 

I’ve come to think of this passage as an interpretative key for the rest of the book. Not in the literal sense that the author inserted a few lines on page 26 to show readers how to read. Rather, this passage contains in microcosm things that make the writing remarkable across the whole book. There are powerful and slightly unsettling metaphors, descriptions that engage all the senses, and a fictional world so rich in detail that characters can draw on internal references to create metaphors. But even more than that, this passage describes the very feeling of reading itself. The writing of this book feels exactly as Edwin’s reading is described above: a carefully cultivated collection of small enjoyments. Writing textured enough I imagine myself closing my eyes and running a finger over it. So that’s what I’m looking at here: digging in and picking apart exactly how this book’s prose gets its layers and textures and movement. 

The most obvious way of lending texture to writing is the insertion of the unusual or the unexpected: fragmented sentence structures, or words that seem out of place. Using the guiding image of Edwin running his finger over the page, they’re the tiny roughnesses of the paper. In the case of A Marvellous Light, these moments are often more lexical than structural. The sentence construction remains largely standard, but often we find words that don’t quite fit dropped into the middle of those sentences. Often these roughnesses involve a word that readers associate with one context, placed into another. Maude, Robin’s sister, is described “taking pins from her hair and dropping them one by one into a jar with tinkling sounds like the overture of rain.”

The idea of opening in “overture” helps the word fit in, as it could refer to the beginning of a rainstorm. But overture is also associated with grand musical productions, and pairing it with the delicacy of hairpins in a jar and raindrops makes the sound all the more vivid, like it’s been Foley-ed into the reader’s brain. 

Often these texture-words incorporate senses usually not involved in processing the information given. One of my favorite lines of the book describes people speaking cruelly about others as “gossip with a sort of aniseed edge to it.” Gossip doesn’t have a taste, but the taste of aniseed has an edge that fits vividly, but not quite perfectly, into the discussion of gossip. Many of the texture-words insert movement and ascribe motivation into an otherwise- static image: a messy office is described as a “tantrum of spilled paper and overturned furniture”; an elderly woman’s face when smiling displays “a tissue-crumple of dimples.” These little incongruities are echoes of the author’s broader facility with metaphor, but I think they have the most power in their smallest form, infusing tiny roughnesses into the prose. 

Of course, texture isn’t only about moments that stall or disconcert the reader. A book full of tiny speed-bumps would eventually become tedious, losing the reader’s attention and investment. Part of what makes the textures of A Marvellous Light remarkable is their variety, and that includes moments that smooth together elements of the story so that the reader barely realizes they’re reading about two different things at once. 

A first example that comes to mind is from this passage : 

Control was a word that hung on Edwin like a half-fitted suit. In some places it clung to him; in others it gaped, in a way that made Robin want to hook his fingers into the loose seams and tug. He didn’t want Edwin to stop talking.

The idea of a word hanging on a person like clothes fits with the comparisons we saw earlier: combining emotions with tactile images. But watch what happens in the rest of the sentence: Robin takes that clothing imagery and slowly revolves it into a sensual image of undressing, while still functioning as a metaphor for encouraging Edwin to talk. The sexual tension between Robin and Edwin is a current of slow-burn emotion in the novel, surfacing in fleeting touches or moments of understanding. But on an even deeper level, it runs through the prose, often infusing mundane moments with barely-perceptible references to physical attraction. The blending of elements adds depth to the sustained infusion of romance throughout the entire book’s plot. 

Beyond the mixing of plot, character, and romance, I think what makes this book truly unique is its ability to incorporate metaphors entirely from within the world of the novel. As a casual SFF romance reader at best, I often find info-dumps about magical systems frustrating, because they feel like the author is speaking to the reader and around the characters. In A Marvellous Light, by contrast, characters fully embody a world of magic, integrating it into their perception of their surroundings. Take this passage that draws on the concept of “cradling.” (Apologies for the unavoidable tiny info-dump: cradling, in the novel, is the means of casting spells. Think the children’s game Cat’s Cradle played without the string –  except for Edwin, who relies on string for added precision in the absence of more powerful magic). Here’s Robin, not quite ready to vocalize his affections for Edwin: 

Robin managed to hold his tongue on something truly unwise like You look like a Turner painting and I want to learn your textures with my fingertips. You are the most fascinating thing in this beautiful house. I’d like to introduce my fists to whoever taught you to stop talking about the things that interest you. Those were not things one blurted out to a friend. They were their own cradles of magic, an expression of the desire to transform one thing into another. And what if the magic went awry?

This passage draws together so many pieces of the novel’s world. Robin is a connoisseur of art, making the Turner painting reference clearly his, while “learn your textures with my fingertips” evokes Edwin’s method of reading. Edwin’s cerebral introversion and boxer Robin’s love of action are contained within his desire to punch anyone who overlooks Edwin. But the real beauty of this passage is in the nearly-effortless use of cradling – a method of physical transmutation – as a metaphor for verbalizing feelings of love, and how that can transform a relationship for better or for worse. There’s a massive amount of weight behind this metaphor, in terms of information about magic systems, but it’s weight that disappears under the smooth surface of the prose.  

Ultimately, when it comes to creating this “texturized prose” the smoothly blended moments are just as important as the tiny roughnesses, and this book executes both masterfully. But perhaps most impactful of all is book-wide topography of both those elements: a knowledge of when to deploy which approach.

We can see that knowledge at work three short passages. The first is my favorite line of the entire novel, because it contains some of the only disjointed syntax in the book. In it, Edwin contemplates the loss of Robin’s affections : 

Even with or without all the magic in the world, you couldn’t charm a person to stay. Not for long. Not truly. Not and keep you safe. 

This set of sentences offers a perfect example of the gorgeous roughness of A Marvellous Light’s prose. I tripped happily over the addition of “or without” to the first sentence, considering that Edwin’s meaning is fully conveyed by the hypothetical “even with all the magic in the world.” But it’s the last bit that I love the most. “Not and keep you safe.” All three of the final clauses are incomplete, but that last one is incomplete in a different, noticeable way. The “not and” is only legible via the pattern of the previous two utterances, so that it makes sense without sounding quite right. It possesses a beautiful breaking quality to it that echoes Edwin’s emotional state.  

Take, as a point of comparison, this sentence from a much-less-emotionally-central part of the book, during a meeting with a tertiary character:

Anne nodded. She looked tired and stiff. She looked like a doll enchanted to do those exact things in response to those exact words: to sit, to nod, to say thank you.  

In structure, it somewhat echoes the line above about Edwin. Here, however, there’s some lexical repetition (those exact things/those exact words) to reinforce the impression of mundanity. And unlike “Not and keep you safe,” the fragment repetition here falls into a strictly grammatical series of infinitives separated by commas. The texture of Edwin’s passage draws attention to his feelings of brokenness and hurt with finger-rough prose. This second passage smooths the way for Anne’s feelings of exhaustion – and reserves standout prose for standout moments.  

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments where the smoothness of the prose packs a knockout punch. Consider, for example, this set of three fragments in the final chapter – and final love scene – of the book: 

Robin kissed him, kissed him, drank him in like water.

The prose here flows beautifully, but also noticeably; the choice of “kissed him, kissed him” draws more attention through its grammatical loosening than “kissed him and kissed him” might. It echoes the loosening of inhibition between Robin and Edwin, the relief of their coming together and the smoothing of the road in front of them. It’s exactly the right sentence for the right moment, something this book has a knack for from start to finish. 

In closing, I want to circle back to where I started, to re-read two sentences from the opening passage and enjoy how marvelously it works as a key for reading this novel :

Edwin ran his eyes twice more over the page and then when the words refused to line themselves up and be seen, replaced the sweep of his sight with that of a fingertip, finding pleasure in the tiny roughness of the paper. Edwin’s collection of small enjoyments was carefully cultivated. 

I hope you’ve found some pleasure in this trip through A Marvellous Light’s rough textures and small enjoyments, and if you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend picking it up. 

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