by Freya Marske
“There was a high, firm wall beneath the constant performance that was Violet Debenham. She was the opposite to Edwin; his walls were all up front, the warmth there beneath them if you had the patience to wait to be granted entry. Violet’s warmth was on the outside. Sweets spread temptingly out on a blanket. Pause and let yourself accept the entertainment, the offering, and you might not notice the wall at all.”
In an effort to help her brother, Maud Blythe has set sail for New York to find Emily Navenby, one of the women who protects a piece of the Last Contract. Following the death of Flora Sutton, it is more important than ever that the other pieces be protected. However, things go amiss when Mrs. Navenby is murdered on the return journey to England, and all her silver is stolen in an attempt to recover her piece of the Last Contract. In order to solve the shipboard mystery before the RMS Lyric arrives in Southampton, Maud will need to enlist some unusual allies, including the actress Violet Debenham, and the former magician Lord Hawthorn.
A Restless Truth is a follow up to Freya Marske’s 2021 debut, A Marvellous Light. In this installment, the focus is on Maud Blythe, Robin’s sister, who played a minor role in the first book. In some ways this seems like a more fitting focus for this series, which has at its heart a coven of older women who broke away from the patriarchal British magic system and went their own way. They not only defied expectations and cultivated magic that should not have been possible, they made an active choice to protect against the greed of men who would seize power, even at the expense of their own personal relationships. Unfortunately, most of these bad ass elders are dead or dying, including Emily Navenby, with whom the prologue begins. In a fun twist, however, Mrs. Navenby’s unfinished business results in a ghost, meaning that we do get to enjoy the continued presence of her character, albeit in a less corporeal form. The series turns on the next generation of misfit magicians figuring out how best to protect the legacy of the Forsythia Club.
As if the murder mystery were not enough, the journey is also full of personal revelations for Maud. Violet’s somewhat scandalous company forces Maud to consider that perhaps her previous lack of interest in romantic relationships has less to do with her capacity for them, and more to do with her assumption that such a relationship would have to be with a man. Even having lived with her brother and his partner, Maud has not quite made the leap to considering how such a concept might apply to herself. I became invested in her character and didn’t miss Robin and Edwin as much as I feared I would when I learned that the second book was changing perspective.
Violet is an interesting character in her own right, a bright, shining façade that hides a girl who has put up barbed defenses to protect herself from ever being hurt or taken advantage of again. Having run away from home several years ago, she has lived in the world enough to have had the lesson that trust is a luxury beaten into her bones. Maud, however, has little respect for Violet’s walls, and the injuries they might be protecting. Maud’s determination to go on a journey of self-discovery at times ties into Violet’s agenda for causing scandal, at other times wars with her instinct for self-protection, creating a push-pull dynamic that was both frustrating and compelling.
A final installment in the series, due out this fall, will focus on Lord Hawthorn, who was once part of the very magical elite they are fighting against, before he lost all his powers. While each book has its own romance, the series is best read in order.
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