It should come as no surprise that I read most of A Power Unbound at 2 a.m. That’s the time for romantic trysts in hidden places; for unexpected heart-to-hearts with estranged family; for epic showdowns. It also meant, as a reader, that I was silently sobbing my way through a ghostly reconciliation, or fist-pumping a big kiss, without waking up my husband or my dog snoring beside me. Freya Marske’s triumphant conclusion to her fantasy romance series The Last Binding is the kind of book that could certainly be experienced somewhere in public at a time where it’s more socially acceptable to be whooping with joy at how wonderfully all the series threads tie up. But there’s also something undeniably special about getting to read it in the most private and liminal of moments.
In true romance series fashion, everything has been building to this couple… and in true fantasy series fashion, everything has been building to this final book. Because although Lord Hawthorn was initially introduced as the grumpy casual ex of Edwin Courcey in A Marvellous Light, his involvement in the shipboard murder mystery of A Restless Truth reintroduced him as Jack Alston, bound by a terrible secret-curse, while also bringing in his perfect foil in journalist and thief Alan Ross. And while both men have plenty of reason to eschew love for themselves and especially to not see it in the infuriating other, it’s only through his dangerous flirtation with Alan that Jack will be able to process his twin sister’s death and the simultaneous amputation of his magic. In fact, the fate of all of Edwardian-era Britain’s magic hangs on it.
Well, it’s not just dependent on these two working together. The fate of magic also hangs on Edwin researching the nature of magic itself, with his beloved Robin Blyth supporting him with his magical visions. Not to mention any clues to be found inside Spinet House, the very independent puzzle-box of a house that actress and illusionist Violet Debenham has recently inherited, which the group is searching under the eye of their de facto general Maud Blyth. Are you catching on? In all three books, Marske has inextricably woven these romances—as well as their attendant tertiary relationships, be they filial or friendly—with the mystery of The Last Contract, the human/fae bargain that predates them all by several generations.
By the start of A Power Unbound, this found family will be searching for the third of three magically disguised items from the original contract, before the Magical Assembly—led by Edwin’s cruel and ruthless brother Walter, conspiring with Jack’s cousin George Bastoke—gets their hands on it. By the end, it will transform humans’ relationship to the magic that has threaded itself into the very fabric of British society.
And what brings it all together is a collection of queer erotica written by a pseudonymous filth-peddler called the Roman. The slim books’ telltale purple spines are how Edwin and Robin, despite being on opposite sides of a magical divide, recognized one another in A Marvellous Light. Those same tracts helped Maud let go of her inhibitions on the R.M.S. Lyric, via late-night tongue-in-cheek performances that opened up her understandings of desire. And now… well, all I will say is that you have an avid lifelong reader in Jack, and a lifelong writer in Alan, and an entire library’s worth of ready-made scripted scenarios that they both know by heart. It’s the perfect formula for the filthy and freeing ways in which they play together and explore all manner of feelings.
But that’s the thing: It’s easier to play a part—to fulfill someone’s expectations about how you act according to class and privilege, or lack thereof; to push someone’s kinky buttons; to play out a scenario to its inevitable end—than it is to be truly authentic about your feelings. Each of the Last Binding’s couples are forced at turns to be vulnerable with one another in the bedroom, as well as with other figures in non-sexual scenarios, but Marske cranks those emotional stakes up to 11 here. She nails the enemies-to-lovers dynamic of Jack and Alan by really delving into the class tensions between them, which provide delicious frisson to their trysts but are actual potential obstacles to being able to trust one another. When we meet Alanzo Rossi’s Italian family and realize just how many ends he has to make meet for them, in ways that have never occurred to his new friends, it is destabilizing in a way that provides ever more surprises even two and a half books in.
And then, by the same token, there’s Jack’s grief. The loss of his twin Elsie—and with her Jack’s share of their power—has hung over the series like a specter, with more revealed in a devastating prologue that propels Jack away from his ancestral family estate Cheetham Hall. But if we’ve learned anything about the land upon which this series has sprouted, you can’t just abandon the grounds that fostered you and expect them to stop sprouting in your absence. Grief doesn’t disappear, it just changes (me, still processing losing my dad, drafting my own review: well FUCK), and if you’re lucky it grows into a part of you that you get to carry into the rest of your own life.
All of these poignant themes culminate in a truly excellent magical showdown during an equinox gala, that keeps the action taut and fast-paced. Truly, The Last Contract could have been resolved in any manner of ways, and part of the fun is not being able to predict how things will turn out in the end.
Especially exhilarating is how Marske takes such big swings with the magic. The series started with deadly curses and continued with magic used in exceedingly bloody self-defense, but back in England we get to really see the world-rending scope of it. Neither Marske nor her characters are afraid to transmute magic, to take it away, to blow the whole thing up. A thrilling set piece in the middle of the book involves a heist in a government building, and Edwin not. fucking. around., which is its own fantastic payoff considering his complicated personal history with having less magic than his peers.
In every line, Marske so carefully considers the nature of power, wisely channeling it through characters who, compared to nearly everyone else they run into, are lacking in magic. Violet might have the strongest affinity (at least, at the start of Unbound), but even she has had magic used against her in disempowering ways. That’s what makes these people the best ones to determine whether humans deserve to continue wielding magic like privilege, like access, like upper-class arrogance.
A Marvellous Light set this series’ standard for delving into the thorniness of contracts and how beautiful it is to freely consent. A Power Unbound beautifully carries through that thread as well as the concept of ownership—of magical estates via inheritance, yes, but also offering yourself up to belong to someone else. I hope you enjoy this accomplished ending, then find someone to text or shake awake at 2 a.m. to hand them A Marvellous Light and establish the contract between author and reader all over again.
A Power Unbound is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Thank goodness Natalie Zutter just heard about Swordcrossed, otherwise she’d be a lot more bereft at the end of The Last Binding. In the meantime, share your favorite fantasy romances with her on Twitter and Bluesky!