Note: As the author has done so, I have used a character’s ‘deadname’ (or pre-transition name) in this review.
Viola Carroll was raised as the Viscount Marleigh. She joined the army with her dearest friend, Justin De Vere, the Duke of Gracewood, and after being presumed dead at Waterloo, took the opportunity to start to live honestly as herself. Her brother inherited the viscountcy and invited Viola to live in his household as a companion to his wife.
But while Viola has moved on with her life, Gracewood has not. Lady Marleigh, alarmed by correspondence from Gracewood’s sister, takes Viola to check on the girl’s welfare, but it turns out that Gracewood is the one in need of help. He has excruciating physical pain from a leg injury sustained at Waterloo, but it’s his mental state that is the most perilous. While she has revealed her transition to her brother and his wife, Viola has allowed Gracewood to believe that the Marleigh he knew died at Waterloo. Because Marleigh joined the army only to accompany Gracewood, Gracewood blames himself for his friend’s death, and his guilt over that, added to war trauma, has left him laudanum-addicted, emotionally shattered, and considering suicide. Yet Viola fears Gracewood’s reaction if he realizes that he used to know her as Marleigh.
The author states that it was intentional not to make Viola’s identity the main plot conflict, and I appreciated that. I liked that Gracewood has no issues with Viola’s gender transition, because I’m just not interested in following someone through that particular journey. Once he knows who Viola is, he is prepared to love her as herself. He’s also had past sexual experiences which mean he’s comfortable with sex with Viola, and his hatred for his bloodline means he’s completely fine with not having biological children.
What worked less well for me is the fact that Gracewood doesn’t recognize Viola for over a week. Let us borrow a phrase from Tolstoy and declare, “Historical romances are all inaccurate, but each historical romance is inaccurate in its own way.” I acknowledge that the ability to be ‘unclockable’, or unrecognizable, even by your closest pre-transition relationships, is wish fulfillment, and it isn’t objectively any less realistic than the many Cinderella heroines who are somehow unrecognizable out of their ball gowns. Still, I struggled to believe that a transition without surgical or hormonal affirming treatments could produce someone Gracewood wouldn’t at least think looked familiar (when I do cross-gender makeup, everyone comments on my uncanny resemblance to my brother). Your mileage may vary on this.
Gracewood is upset that Viola didn’t trust him with her truth, and that he would never have known if he hadn’t figured it out on his own. He is also upset that she allowed him to believe her dead. Viola’s desire to transition, solidified by her first experience of meeting someone transgender (one of the farmers who helped her recover after Waterloo), is certainly her own business, but she reacts to Gracewood’s feelings by becoming very angry with him.
This is thorny territory, because there are multiple issues here that become conflated into one. While letting Gracewood believe her dead is connected to her transition, it’s not entirely the same, and I felt he was more justified in his anger on this subject than the author and Viola seemed to think is warranted. It really bothered me that when Viola personally witnesses Gracewood’s laudanum addiction and suicidality, she responds by starting to sneak out of the house because staying will increase the risk of Gracewood recognizing her.
Another issue is that after Gracewood realizes the truth about Viola’s transition, the story has no momentum. She says she can’t marry him because he might be laughed out of his clubs and because she can’t give him biological children. He says he doesn’t care about either. So while we sit around waiting for her to decide she believes him, we watch her move in to be a companion to his sister and shepherd her through her début into London society. Not only did I find the sister’s problems uninteresting, they also feel unrealistic; at one point, there is a deception involving correspondence which relies on a character never talking about the notes to their ostensible author.
The supporting character of Lady Marleigh, Viola’s sister-in-law, is terrific. She manages to be difficult and authentic and pushy while still being someone you like and whose good intentions are clear. I also liked Lady Marleigh’s son. The villain, however, is annoying sequel bait (not joking; the author chuckles in the postscript, “How obvious is it that [character] is sequel bait?”). That seems to prevent Hall from fully committing to his villainy, yet making him problematic enough that I’m not comfortable rooting for him in the future.
Alexis Hall is a strong prose writer, so this book is generally well-written. I have several instances of text highlighted where I enjoyed the turn of phrase - for instance, Gracewood as “a cracked vase of a man.”
I finally settled on a B-. However, I expect this book to work differently for different readers. I hope, in explaining what did and didn’t work for me, that this review is helpful in working out whether or not it’s the right book for you.
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