Title: A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1)
Author: Freya Marske
Are there LGBTQ+ characters? I mean, duh. Just look at that fabulous, fabulous cover.
Brief summary / book review: So, the purpose of this “Are There LGBTQ+ Characters” series is to let people know if the book contains actual gay characters in whatever I’ve read, which isn’t always apparent in book blurbs, reviews, or synopsis. In this case, all you need to do is read the dust jacket and it’ll tell you outright, yes, there are gay characters. Specifically, there are two point of view characters, both of whom are gay and undergo the frenemies-to-lovers journey (again, this is not a spoiler! The dust jacket is pretty clear on this).
And judging by the 5/5 rating I gave it, you probably already know I really liked this book. What remains, then, is looking at why this book is so good, from my perspective. What makes this one in particular tick, when there are other LGBTQ+ stories that don’t quite measure up as well? What makes a good story, a good story?
It’s not always necessary to have great characters to create a successful story. Take The Three-Body Problem, for example — it is more a conceptual exercise than anything else (I read it a few years ago and I couldn’t tell you who a single person in that book was, but I do remember all the Trisolarians doing their weird mathematical exercises). Or The Hobbit. I’m sure I’m going to scandalize a few readers here, but did we need all those dwarves? There are 13 dwarves, of which exactly 2 have personalities. What distinguishes Ori from Nori or Dori or Kili or Fili or Oin or Gloin or Groin or Schmoin or whatever the hell their names were?
I’ll tell you right now: Nothing. Had I been JRR Tolkien’s editor, I would have culled all the dwarves from the story, minus the one or two who actually mattered. But then, perhaps that is why JRR Tolkien is a legend and I am but a humble blogger from New Jersey who is not above making cheap genital jokes at the expense of rhyming dwarven names.
In general, I would say there are roughly two types of readers — the first reader is the kind who likes to explore ideas, themes, concepts. Where plot and character perhaps come second to the thematic throughline of a story. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings could be seen as a story that explores the history and legends of Middle Earth, with a bit about a ring, a couple of hardy hobbits, a wizard and a ranger along the way to keep things moving. Other writers who appeal to these kinds of readers might include names like Kim Stanley Robinson or Neal Stephenson or Ursula K. Le Guin (after all, what is Left Hand of Darkness but an exploration of gender?).
It’s not that plot or character doesn’t matter to these kinds of writers or readers, necessarily; it’s that they are in service of exploring larger ideas.
The second kind of reader is those who care much more about being invested in the characters and the actual plot of the story. The setting, themes, and worldbuilding are secondary to being hooked as a reader. They want to know what happens next, or they want to get deep into a character’s psyche. Authors in this space that come to mind are figures like John Scalzi or Brandon Sanderson or Robin Hobb. Hobb is a great example of a writer who gets incredibly, profoundly deep into a character’s mental state, quite like no other I’ve ever read. You’d never find the kind of character depth in we see in The Farseer Trilogy in a book like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves.
Obviously, there are readers who like both kinds of stories. And there are definitely writers who can straddle both worlds — George R.R. Martin, for example, has compelling characters and plotting in A Song of Ice and Fire, but also takes the time to linger over the history of Westeros. The “two types of readers” isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I would say, in general, readers tend to gravitate towards one kind of story over the other. I would definitely count myself as a reader who gets invested in characters and plot over more conceptual, thematic ideas, but then, Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay, N.K. Jemisin, among others, are some of my favorite writers, and they work in both worlds with ease.
And even though I’m a plot-and-character-first reader, I would argue that in order for a book to be successful, it has to incorporate both worlds, somehow. It doesn’t have to be an even split, but a story that is all about a character, without a larger thematic thrust behind it, can only be really good, but never truly great. And vice-versa.
It’s why a show like The Sopranos succeeded where Boardwalk Empire came up short. It’s why Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is head and shoulders above Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s why when looking at the Hitchcock canon, a movie like Vertigo or Rear Window will always stand above, say, Psycho or North by Northwest. It’s not that these other stories are bad (well, except maybe the first Star Trek movie) — it’s just that they’re missing that essential something that makes the other stories that much better.
A Marvellous Light has that essential something. (See, and you were worried I’d never get around to talking about this book!)
It is primarily a character-driven story, going deep into the minds of two men who are reluctantly falling in love with each other, exploring magic and each other, all the while trying to solve a mystery while visiting a family estate (making it a magical mystery tour, I suppose). But there’s also an undertaste of a larger world beyond this particular story, creeping along the fringes without overwhelming the reader.
It also raises questions about how we grow into the adults we’ve become, and so much of it is dependent on who our parents are, and our siblings, and the circumstances of our lives. What does having socialite parents who see their children as trophies, rather than real human beings, do to your psyche? What does having a father who thinks you’re weak and to be pitied do for your confidence? What about an older brother who’s bullied you, physically and emotionally, all your life? How does that shape the way you love someone?
To be clear, A Marvellous Light doesn’t get heavy with those elements, but it does raise them, and explores them, and uses them like iron rebar in the cement of the story. Concrete is incredibly strong on its own, but has no tensile strength (meaning it’s brittle). But add some rebar to reinforce it, and it can bend much more before it breaks. It’s invisible, but it’s what makes concrete that much stronger.
The rebar in A Marvellous Light isn’t quite so invisible as that, but it runs through the story, and gives it a suppleness and depth that many other books of its kind misses. It’s why this one deserves a top rating, and the author, Freya Marske, has done an outstanding job in her debut, and I cannot wait to read more from her. It’s a story with fabulous characters and is smartly plotted, but also isn’t afraid to ask some of the bigger-picture questions along the way.
About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.