A Restless Truth, Freya Marske (Tordotcom 978-1-250-78891-7, $27.99, 400pp, hc) November 2022.
Anne Perry is better known for setting her mysteries in the Victorian era, while Agatha Christie understood the power of an isolated location (say, a train). For the second novel in her Last Binding series, A Restless Truth, Freya Marske pulls from the best of both these masters of the whodunit: we are still in the very Victorian-flavored England of A Marvelous Light, where magic-wielding gentry will kill to keep their power, only this time, we are aboard an ocean liner where neither we, nor heroine Maud Blyth (sister of the first book’s Baronet, Robin Blyth) can escape the fiendish plot that centers, again, on legendary artifacts, and the grisly lengths a cabal of evil magicians will go to acquire these mysterious objects.
Maud has been sent to the United States on a mission by her brother. She is to find and warn Elizabeth Navenby, sworn keeper of one of these sacred objects, of the nefarious plot kicked off in A Marvelous Light. Upon learning of the plot, as well as the death of her friend (and fellow keeper) Flora at the hands of these rogue magicians, Elizabeth insists on setting off immediately to England with her charge. So, Maud’s mission has been extended to accompany and protect the old woman and the magical treasure on the journey across the Atlantic.
Of course, on day one of the journey, Elizabeth Navenby is murdered, and her belongings pillaged. Maud, plucky as she is, is alone and must solve the crime and retrieve the precious object before the ship docks in England.
Thankfully (coincidentally), first class is populated by upper class folks Maud either has heard about from her brother, such as the haughty Lord Hawthorn, or who appeared in her brother’s prophetic visions, like the brash Violet Debenbaum. Maud recruits Hawthorn and Violet to her aid, and, when they are later joined (via bribe) by the jewel thief/journalist Alan Ross, a ragtag investigative team is born.
Like its predecessor, the pacing was a puzzle. Somehow, A Restless Truth builds to a fairly frenetic speed, with much happening in breathless sequence – yet, by pause and recount, little actually does happen for pages at a time. The ship is very atmospherically described, and it makes logical sense that there is a lot of flopping about; it is a limited, closed space, yet still very large, filled with passengers, any of whom could be a suspect. It would be impossible to question everyone in every class, and, as brightly Maud is drawn, she is no Poirot. Besides, Maud is frequently distracted by her growing desire for the beautiful, infuriating, shameless Violet (worthwhile, as Violet really is a fascinating creature doing all she can to push back at the manners and class expectations thrust upon her). In addition, all four of the investigative team must dodge magical attempts on their lives, which takes up time – not to mention the keeping up of appearances expected by first class passengers, to avoid scrutiny from non-magical passengers and staff, and to, hopefully, divert suspicion away from all the breaking-and-entering of cabins and digging for information that they are doing during the course of sleuthing.
This means that while the prose is gorgeous, there were sections I found myself skimming to get back to the actual mystery at hand (whodunit?). That being said, more patient readers will find value in what I simply skated over (and readers with an erotic bent will love the long descriptions of period pornography, and the hilarious and uncomfortable party at Hawthorn’s where all four heroes read aloud).
The reveal of the murderer doesn’t hold much surprise, mostly because it’s someone we barely encounter and so, because they aren’t even on our radar, bother to suspect. But that’s fine. The key to the mystery in the end is less whodunit and whether Maud and gang will meet the deadline of finding the magical object, safely and with lives intact, by the time the ship docks (spoiler: they do).
The romance between Maud and Violet is, though, hands down, the best part of the novel. Again, in the spirit of the first book, where Robin and Edwin’s love affair provided all the real, palatable tension and payoff, the love affair is where this book is at. Maud is so plausibly innocent, while still being roundly developed and charming, and Violet, anachronistically modern, feels worth all the mooning Maud performs around her. It’s sweet and then prickly, dangerous in its own intimate way, as danger swirls around them. Maud holds some trauma around her upbringing, by parents whose love was conditional. Violet herself uses her career as an actress as a convenient way to mask her true self and her fears around being worthy of love. If you don’t find yourself caught up in the greater mystery, there is no way you’ll be able to resist the romance.
Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.
Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.
Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.
This review and more like it in the November 2022 issue of Locus.
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