When Robin Blyth arrives at his new position in the Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division, he’s expecting a slightly overwhelming, but typical first day at a new job. What he’s not expecting is to learn that magic is real, and that his predecessor might have been murdered. The deliverer of this news, magician Edwin Courcey, becomes Robin’s guide to the magical underworld of Edwardian England. Freya Marske uses this imaginative framework to spin a tale of conspiracy and unexpected love in A Marvellous Light, first of a planned trilogy.
Congrats on such a splendid debut. When you think back to the original inspiration for this book, did Robin and Edwin’s story turn out the way you expected?
Thank you! A lot of the worldbuilding and plot events did change in the telling—more on that below!—but the emotional core of the story, Edwin and Robin and their romance, was the first part of the book to cohere for me. I knew who they were, and I knew why and how they would fall in love. That part barely changed at all between the initial inspiration and the final draft.
Edwardian England is rendered so vividly in A Marvellous Light. Did this story and its setting always go hand in hand when you were coming up with the concept? In a similar vein, what does this setting give to the story that other time periods might not?
Somewhat hilariously, the reason I chose the Edwardian era is because of book two’s story and setting being extremely intertwined. I always knew the second book would be set on an ocean liner around the time of the Titanic. But once I started poking around and researching the time period, the manor house party-setting of book one fell perfectly into place. And the greatest contribution of this specific historical setting turned out to be the Arts & Crafts movement, which not only gave me a lot of wonderful visuals but also helped to bring out one of the most important character notes for Robin: his appreciation for art.
What choices did you make spontaneously while drafting that added the most to the book?
I think of myself as a kitchen-sink kind of drafter. I’ll snatch at whatever offhand world building or character details drift across my mind, and shove them into the text, so that when I need a spanner to fix a plot problem later in the book I can turn around and say, “Well, I’m SURE there was a spanner back in Chapter Four.” Anything that gets used stays in; everything else gets painfully pruned in revisions.
I wrote myself a spanner-detail about how a magical family makes a contract with their house and land, then found myself at the very midpoint of the book realizing that in order to be consistent with my own world building, I would have to allow a certain unplanned thing to happen. And this thing was so fun and interesting that I immediately stopped and gleefully reworked the outline to see what sort of ripple effects it would have. (Good ones, it turns out!)
When thinking back to the writing process, what passage or section do you most vividly remember?
I don’t want to spoil too much, but the hedge maze scene was definitely the one I had the most fun with. I got to experiment with some more horror-esque tension, which doesn’t appear to a great extent anywhere else in the book, so that stretched some writing muscles for me!
Talk to me about the magic system. Were you inspired by any systems from other works when coming up with your own?
As someone with a methodical mind myself, I’ve always been drawn to magic systems that have an element of the academic to them: those that require study, and patient learning, and don’t come easily. (I’m a sucker for any book featuring a magical school, library or university.) Edwin as a character embodies that kind of magic. At the same time, I wanted this book to have a balance of logical magic and the wilder, more numinous, less explicable magic that lives in fairy tales. The kind of magic that upends an ordered life, just as Robin does for Edwin.
Some say that comedy is the hardest dialogue to write, but I imagine romantic declarations can be just as difficult. Do you have any tips for creating romantic moments that feel real and truthful?
A good love story is unique; It should feel like it could only arise between the two (or more) unique individuals within it. For me, the romantic moments in fiction that feel the most authentic are those that are also the most specific. What are the small details that one character is noticing about another, and how do those details become building blocks in the romance? What are the small things they can do for one another, or say to one another, that make the characters feel seen for who they are, and loved in their flawed entirety? Once you know those answers, you can write a line that shouts I love you! as loudly as if the words were spoken.
What work did you have to put in for this book so that the next installments would have a solid foundation to stand on?
When I got to the end of the first draft, I looked back and thought, “Oh—THAT’S what the theme of this trilogy is! And THIS is how it will play itself out in the other books!” Then I hopped on video chat with an author friend who patiently asked me questions while I wailed and gnashed my teeth until I’d properly worked out the backstory of certain characters and the solid bones of the magic system. The first and largest revision included a lot of careful work to lay the foundations for books two and three.
I also made sure to introduce one of book two’s main characters; ditto for book three. The further you get into a trilogy plot, the less room you have for leisurely character introductions. I want my readers to be able to hit the ground running in the later books, and to have the protagonists feel like existing acquaintances they’re keen to know in more detail.
Horrible families are fun as heck to read. I’m definitely fishing here, but will we see more of that in book two?
Horrible families provide a convenient way for a central couple to be drawn together in a you-and-me-against-the-world sort of way. Robin and Edwin are marooned in a book full of human monsters. However, I wrote book two during 2020, and for some reason I had the urge to escape into a fun romp of a book, full of basically decent people. It still has its nasty villains and its amusing assholes—and the two protagonists are definitely still products of less-than-ideal families—but the family setting itself is much less prominent.
Looking back on both the writing and the editing process, what parts of creating these characters and this story are you most proud of?
I’ll be frank: This is only the second novel I ever wrote, so I’m pleased as hell that it even exists. I’m proud that it has a coherent shape, a coherent aesthetic, a heady combination of all my favorite things (magic! murder mystery! sex!), and characters who are vivid in my mind. I’ve spent countless hours of drafting and revision with them, and I’m not sick of their company yet. I hope I never will be. And I’m more than ready for the world to meet them too.