Mild spoiler warning: if you’re worried about spoilers for the first book, I recommend both books and I recommend reading them in order! If you’re not worried about mild spoilers for the first book, read on.
Usually, I can give some sense of the story’s shape by naming a genre or two, some simple combination that lays bare the bones of a piece. But as with A Marvellous Light before it, in A Restless Truth Freya Marske has concocted a heady potion of so many ingredients that it defies easy description. All I can do is share how it starts:
A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues when Maud Blyth—undercover as Miss Cutler—finds her elderly charge Mrs. Navenby murdered in their shared cabin aboard the ocean liner Lyric, and all of Mrs. Navenby’s silver stolen. But this murder was no simple robbery gone awry; it was the next step in a magical plot to secure the artifacts known collectively as The Last Contract, and to seize control of all of England’s magic. Now unmagical Maud must find the killer magician and recover the hidden piece of the Contract, before the murderer kills her for knowing too much.
But… that barely scratches the surface!
Yes, this story is a magical murder mystery. It’s also a twisty match of wits leavened with society intrigue, skullduggery, and more than a little spy-fiction cloak and dagger action. There are dueling conspiracies, scandalous secrets, and questionable loyalties. But it’s sapphic romance too, with erotica that will leave you checking over your shoulder to be sure you have some privacy.
Have I overlooked this fusion of genres before? Are there secretly oodles of books like this? I don’t know. All I can say is that this book, like A Marvellous Light, manages to fuse these genres in a way I hadn’t seen before.
Now, I already knew I liked my romance stories melded with other genres. Ursula Vernon writing as T. Kingfisher cemented that for me with her Clocktaur War and the Saint of Steel series. Romance, fantasy adventure, murder mystery…all great tastes that taste great together. When I read Freya Marske’s books, I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed romance fused with yet other genres as well.
But I hadn’t realized that society intrigue and spy fiction were so closely related, or went so well together. Reading A Marvellous Light opened my eyes to their similarities, and A Restless Truth cemented my appreciation for the combination. Freya Marske ties these genres together so neatly, she makes me wonder how I didn’t see this before: spy fiction is like society intrigue’s uncanny doppelgänger, just slightly askew, sinister. Would we have reached the current shape of modern spy fiction without the society dramas of Regency England? The questions of loyalty, the attempts to ascertain others’ true goals, and the quiet maneuvering for advantage—these hallmarks of spy fiction fit as comfortably in high society drama as an identical twin in their sibling’s clothes.
It helps, of course, that Freya Marske’s skill with unveiling her characters and baring their hearts is so admirable. All those questions of who trusts whom hold little weight when the people involved are simple cardboard cutouts, but I earnestly enjoy reading Marske’s characters both as a writer and as a reader. I love seeing how she reveals what makes them tick, and how she plays them off each other. Her characters feel human, fallible, and honest.
Better yet, she’s learned the art of the sweet and heartfelt queer romance. Even as she allows her characters to prickle and bridle at their differences and disagreements, she’s found ways to write fun queer romance without consigning it to tragedy. And while there may be drama (there always is), I’ve yet to look at one of her romantic pairs and scream that the two characters are toxic and awful for each other—refreshing, given what I’ve come to expect from romance elsewhere, and critical to my continued enjoyment of her stories.
Having now read two of her romances I feel comfortable saying I enjoy Freya Marske’s narrative rhythm. She’s certainly developed one—most writers do, honestly. Yes, this meant I could accurately guess how and where the romantic plot would go based on how far through the book I was. But that’s not shocking. Nor is it a knock against Marske’s skill: the romance genre, like any other, comes with constraints. Marske has found ways of meeting those constraints which work well for her, and does so while simultaneously threading her path through several other genres. It’s impressive.
Similarly impressive is the way that this story feels so inextricably tied to the worries and constrictions of class and gender, mirroring gay protagonists’ experiences in the previous book, A Marvellous Light. Perhaps the importance of those restrictions was implicit when I mentioned the elements of society intrigue; there are few things more “society” than social expectations and the leash of behavior-permissible-for-your-social-role. Here we have a story about two women operating in high society, one a nigh-suffragette and the other a bawdy theater performer (actor, dancer, etc), trying to carve out room for the lives they desire—and their clandestine activities—while still navigating the restrictions of society-life aboard an ocean liner.
Our protagonists’ lives here are thus a high-wire act, one that feels just true enough while also delivering the escapist thrill of fantasy. How many of this book’s escapades would have been realistically plausible in polite society on such a cruise? I’m not sure. And I’m not going to look this marvelous gift horse in the mouth by conducting more research right now—I’ll just enjoy it, thank you very much.
Like I said at the beginning, I absolutely recommend this book. I also suggest reading A Marvellous Light first. Of course, if you really don’t like hot sexy scenes and queer romance, or intrigue, or secret magical societies in early 1900’s historical fiction, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you’re on the fence, give it a try. I’m certainly glad that I did.