The Queer Principles of Kit Webb
Cat Sebastian takes readers back to Georgian England with her latest novel, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb. It’s a lively tale laden with wit, sparkling dialogue and insightful social commentary; the two leads are superbly characterised and there’s a vibrant secondary cast, too. In fact, when I was only a few chapters in, I thought I’d be awarding the book a DIK, but unfortunately, the plot gets rather convoluted in the second half in a way that didn’t seem all that well thought-out, and that knocked the final grade down a notch or two. But it’s still an entertaining read.
After taking a bullet to the leg, highwayman Gladhand Jack ‘retired’ from the business of highway robbery and now runs a moderately successful coffee house in London. It’s a comfortable – if unexciting – life, and a year after his retirement, Christopher – Kit – Webb is bored. He doesn’t really want to go back to his old life of thievery and trying not to get killed, but he can’t deny that he misses the activity and excitement – or that he’s getting more restless and foul-tempered by the day. Which is why, when something that looked like first-rate trouble – an exquisitely dressed young gentleman complete with powder, patches and an elaborately adorned wig – walks into the coffeehouse, Kit is instantly intrigued.
Edward Percival Talbot – Percy to his friends – is the only son and heir to the Duke of Clare. Or rather, he was, until information recently came to light revealing that his father’s marriage to his mother was bigamous. After living for some years on the Continent, Percy returned to England after his mother’s death to discover that his obnoxious father had married his (Percy’s) childhood friend Marian (seemingly against her wishes), that he has a new baby sister – and that his father married his mother – and now Marian – while he had another wife still living. The first blackmail letter arrived a month earlier, setting out the facts and demanding money, and now Percy and Marian have two months to come up with a plan. Neither of them wants to pay the blackmailer. Percy knows that paying up will mean spending a lifetime in fear of exposure and is inclined to make the truth known on their own terms; Marian thinks paying the blackmailer will let Clare off the hook for what he’s done and she wants revenge, to bring him as low as humanly possible.
Although Percy is facing social ruin, and his entire life has been based on a lie, he’s firstly concerned for Marian and little Eliza and wants to make sure they’re safe and well taken care of before he focuses too much on his own situation. To this end, he plans to steal a book from his father – and then use it to force him to pay him and Marian enough money for them to be able to live comfortably. (At this stage, we don’t know what the book’s contents are). It’s Marian who comes up with the idea of getting Gladhand Jack to do the job for them – but after his first visit to the coffeehouse, Percy isn’t so sure the former highwayman is the right man for the job.
And, as it turns out, neither is Kit, although he’s tempted. Very tempted – and by more than just the idea of one last job. But he knows his own limitations and that his bad leg won’t hold up sufficiently for him to be able to pull off the robbery himself. So he offers to teach Percy how to do it instead.
The first section of the story details Percy’s attempts to persuade Kit to help him, using a mixture of financial incentive and flirtation that stops little short of outright seduction. The chemistry between them is palpable, the dialogue is superb – witty and very sharply observed – and I enjoyed their spirited conversations and the steadily growing affection and tenderness between them.
Kit and Percy are likeable, complex characters, complete opposites who shouldn’t work as a couple – yet they do. Kit is an adorable grouch who has no idea of the esteem in which he’s held by those around him, and Percy hides a deep vulnerability behind his ostentatious outfits and witty conversation. He makes little attempt to hide his attraction to men, while Kit is less concerned with what’s between a partner’s legs and, as he puts it, seldom goes to bed with people because he seldom meets anyone he really wants to go to bed with.
Both men are carrying considerable emotional baggage – Kit has experienced great loss, and Percy hasn’t known much love or affection – and have come to believe that they don’t deserve to be happy or loved. But as they become closer and begin to fall in love with each other, that experience – and the mutual support they can now offer – gradually shows them the lie and they begin to understand that they’re more than the sum of their past experiences and that together, they can be better than they were before. I was pleased with their honesty and that they behave and speak like adults, discussing their pasts in a realistic, sensible way, and that there are no overblown dramatics.
The big problem with the book though, is the plot, which gets progressively more complicated somewhere after the halfway mark. We don’t find out what’s so important about the book Percy wants to steal until really late in the day, and the way plot point after plot point is suddenly stuffed in in the last quarter of the story not only had my head spinning but contributed to an overall feeling of ‘is that it?’ when the book ended. I understand there’s going to be a sequel , but this novel wasn’t originally billed as part of a series (and still isn’t) and I came away from it feeling vaguely disappointed at the way so many things have been left hanging.
In the end, I liked, but didn’t love, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb. The romance is sweet, tender and sexy, and the setting of Georgian London is well-established; I especially loved the descriptions of Percy’s sumptuous outfits. The secondary characters – special mention goes to Betty, Kit’s employee, and Collins, Percy’s valet – are interesting and well-rounded, and the discussions as to the evils and abuses of great privilege are perceptive and, dare I say, timely. Despite my criticisms, fans of queer historical romance will find plenty to enjoy here.