How about a fairy tale where the heroine is the fairy godmother and the prince needs a beautiful gown? Prince Sebastian of Belgium is hiding a secret: he loves wearing gowns, and dreams of donning something more bold and glamorous than his mother’s old castoffs. When he sees a ballgown by seamstress Frances, he immediately knows that she has the artistic vision to bring his dreams to life. The prince’s patronage allows Frances to set her creativity free, and her designs embolden him to create a public identity as Lady Crystallia, who soon becomes the fashion talk of Paris. Amidst all this, the two begin to fall in love.
However, Sebastian’s secret soon traps Frances, too - already known as Sebastian’s seamstress, she can’t claim Lady Crystallia’s garments without raising questions. Staying with him means losing her design dreams, but leaving means they will lose each other.
Sebastian is, if the summary does not make it clear, heterosexual. At times, he feels himself in his masculine prince garments, but he also feels incomplete without Lady Crystallia and her gowns. The author has said in an interview that she considers him genderqueer but is open to him representing different things to different readers. Lady Crystallia’s dramatic and exuberant personality (she makes her debut swanning across the stage at the Miss Marmalade beauty pageant) evokes, for me, a drag persona. Frances’s love for Sebastian is constant across his guises, but I especially liked that she is deliberately shown as attracted to both. It’s not gender-presentation-blind (‘I love you and I don’t care what you look like,’) but gender-presentation conscious (‘You look actively attractive both ways.’)
I liked the competent, creative Frances, a designer who has studied the history of her craft (she can name the designers of sketches Sebastian shows her) and who has the technical skills to make her images real. She has a knack for being able to design to a client’s vision but struggles to bring out her own voice. I liked that the story supports Frances’s decision to pursue her own career rather than stay the secret behind Sebastian’s secret. A book doesn’t have to be limited to affirming just one character’s decision to be themselves.
This story is a fairy tale, but it is based on the Paris and Europe of the late 1800s. I liked the way the pared-down backgrounds established time and place. The outfits worn are sometimes historically accurate, especially for the ordinary day moments and the supporting cast. When they aren’t, as for Lady Crystallia’s dramatic gowns, it isn’t problematic because the visual aesthetic is consistent, like in a Disney film. Also because the gowns are beautiful! This book is printed in full color and makes the most of it.
One jarring historical problem: Sebastian’s parents are King Leo and Queen Marie of Belgium, the names of the actual king and queen in the time period of this story. The author even draws them to resemble the historical monarchs. Given that this book is not literal history (there was no Sebastian of Belgium, to start), I can ignore that the real Marie and Leopold had only daughters and that they loathed each other and lived separately. What I can’t dismiss however, is that Leopold II of Belgium was the king whose brutal exploitation of the Congo resulted in the deaths of nearly half the population. Ordinarily, I’d say readers who aren’t into history probably won’t mind or notice this, but frankly, we should notice, and we should mind. Keeping Leopold here was a mistake made worse by his kindly, comic role in the climax of the book. If the imaginary Sebastian had to be Belgian, his father should have been fully fictitious.
Once Sebastian’s secret is revealed, the ending also goes full fairy tale in a way that is completely historically unrealistic, but so what? Boys who like dresses deserve fairy tales, too, and the ending that lets him and Frances have it all and each other is charming.
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