Book review: Unmasked by the Marquess, by Cat Sebastian

Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess. Avon Impulse. 2018. $5.99. 320p. PB. 9780062821607.

 

“Ha! I wish you were anything as dignified as a foundling… I’ve quite made up my mind that what you are is a changeling. Some very proper and well-behaved child was snatched away by the fairies and you were put in the cradle in her stead. That’s the only explanation for the mischief you’ve wrought among us mortals.”

A changeling. She liked the sound of that, as silly as it was. She had been in between for so long. Neither man nor woman, neither servant nor gentlefolk. Neither fraud nor honest. (153)

Seeking an advantageous marriage for his sister Louisa, Robert Selby has packed up the household and headed for London. There, he enlists the help of Alistair de Lacey, Marquess of Pembroke and one of the most powerful men in the region. While “always correct, but never benevolent” Alistair is at first reluctant to assist, he soon finds himself drawn in by Robert’s charms. But there’s one problem: Robert (whom Alistair refers to as Robin) is really Charity Church, a foundling and housemaid who took the real Robert’s place out of necessity – only to discover she (Sebastian uses she/her pronouns throughout) felt more herself wearing men’s clothing and navigating the world as Robert. When her secret is revealed, both Alistair and Robin must decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice in order to live happily-ever-after.

As someone who enjoys romance novels – there’s truly nothing better when I’m in need of a relaxing, predictable read – but doesn’t often feel a connection with the characters, Robin was a revelation. It’s fairly common, especially in historical romance, to find female characters dressing as men. However, this is usually nothing more than a plot device, used in order to gain the female lead access to some male sanctuary where she will then meet the male lead and fall hopelessly in love. But what of those characters who dress as men because they must, because the restrictions of female attire feel, well, restricting? If you’re not a fan of romance, I’ll let you in on a secret: Those characters are few and far between. So finding Robin, a character who seemed to really understand me, was practically ground-breaking; I quickly fell in love with her determination and spark.

I did not, however, fall quickly in love with Alistair. Every time it felt like maybe, maybe I could understand what Robin saw in him, Alistair would turn back into an arrogant, self-righteous toad. Beyond that, while Robin’s choice of attire and name veered drastically from the stereotypical romance novel plot device, Alistair’s bisexuality was used almost entirely to further the storyline, an easy explanation for his continued romantic interest in Robin after learning she’s not male.

My only other objection was to Sebastian’s use of she/her pronouns throughout the story. I was sure Robin would not choose to identify with those pronouns. But it’s possible this was my own thoughts and feelings bleeding into the text. Sebastian’s thoughtful Author Note – which unfortunately comes at the end of the story – includes a reference to her choice of pronouns, where she states she didn’t feel Robin would be bothered by feminine pronouns but often finds herself using they/them or simply Robin when discussing the book.

All things considered, Unmasked by the Marquess – the first in Sebastian’s new Regency Imposters series – was one of my favorite reads of the year. Fun and sexy, fans of historical romance authors such as Tessa Dare or Elizabeth Hoyt will enjoy Sebastian’s writing style, while readers desperately seeking nonbinary leads will find a lot to love here.

-Kaitlin Frick, New York Public Library

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