Unmasked by the Marquess
Unmasked by the Marquess, the first in Cat Sebastian’s new Regency Imposters series, marks something of a departure for her in that, unlike her previous books, it isn’t a male/male romance. The two protagonists are a man and a woman – but the fact that this isn’t a standard m/f romance quickly becomes apparent when we learn that our heroine – a former housemaid named Charity Church – has actually been living as a man for the past six years and feels far more ‘right’ in herself dressing, acting and living as a man than she ever did as a woman.
(I’m using ‘she’ and ‘her’ in this review, even though Charity is non-binary; the author uses those pronouns throughout the book for reasons she explains in her author’s note, so I’m going to follow her lead).
Robert Selby and his sister Louisa have come to London with the object of securing an advantageous match for Louisa. Unfortunately however, coming from rural Northumberland makes an entrée into the right circles in London rather difficult as they know no one who can introduce them. Remembering his father’s old friend, the late Marquess of Pembroke, Robert hits upon the idea of asking the current marquess for help; if a man of his standing is seen to take notice of Louisa, then surely other men will follow and a proposal will ensue.
Alistair de Lacey has spent the years since the death of his profligate father working hard to rebuild the family finances and to claw back the respectability the late marquess threw away in favour of a life filled with excess and dissolution. When a charming and rather attractive young man named Robert Selby is ushered into his library, Alistair expects to be tapped for money, so is surprised when Selby tells him that the late marquess stood godfather to his (Robert’s) sister, and asks for Alastair’s assistance in launching her into society. But Alistair – who has just received (and turned down) a similar request from his late father’s mistress on behalf of her eldest daughter (Alistair’s half-sister) – isn’t inclined to help and sends the young man on his way.
Charity – the author has her think of herself as Charity in the chapters from her PoV, while Alistair thinks of her as Robert and later, Robin – is disappointed and isn’t sure how to proceed. The next day, however, an unexpected encounter with Pembroke and his younger brother, Lord Gilbert, engenders a remarkably quick volte-face on Pembroke’s part and soon, Charity – as Robert – and Louisa become part of Pembroke’s small circle.
After this, things move very quickly – rather too quickly in fact, because in no time at all, Alistair and Robert are the best of friends, and while we’re told this friendship develops over a couple of weeks, on the page there’s a big jump from their not knowing each other at all to being extremely comfortable with one another. Given that Alistair has been established as overly cautious and very proper, the way he so easily befriends Robert feels somewhat out of character. The way they seem to just ‘click’ is nicely conveyed, but it’s still quite a leap from there to bosom-buddies, and I couldn’t really buy it in context.
Alistair is well aware that he can feel sexual desire for both men and women – although this being the nineteenth century, he hasn’t acted on his attraction to men – so it’s not the fact he’s attracted to Robert that gives him pause. It’s the way Robert has so quickly worked his way under his skin, the way his presence in a room can light it up and the way Alistair feels so much more alive when Robert is with him. So it comes as a huge disappointment when, on the morning after their first kiss, Alistair learns that Robert lied to him about Louisa’s being the old marquess’ goddaughter. He lashes out angrily, even going to far as to accuse Robert of intending to blackmail him over their kiss – and the only thing Robert can think of to allay Alistair’s fears on that score is to confess that he’s not Robert, but Charity.
Of course Alistair is even more furious at this deception – but after a few miserable days and weeks alone, decides that having Robert – as Charity, Robert or whoever she wants to be – is preferable to not having her in his life at all. He doesn’t care what’s under her clothes; it’s the person inside he’s interested in, but the trouble really begins when he asks Charity to marry him. Charity insists Alistair hasn’t thought it through; how can a marquess – especially one as concerned with reputation and propriety as he is – possibly marry a former housemaid? And not only a former housemaid, but a former housemaid who doesn’t intend on living the rest of her life as a woman and will be damned if she’s going to give up the freedoms she’s enjoyed for the past six years?
There is a lot of plot and backstory stuffed into the book, and I have to admit that sometimes it felt like overkill. Charity’s reasons for becoming Robert Selby are good ones, but it’s complicated, and becomes moreso when an important fact of which Alistair – and the reader – has been ignorant, is suddenly thrown into the mix near the end of the book. The strongest part of the story is actually Alistair’s progress from curmudgeonly stick-in-the mud to a man who is much more forgiving of the foibles of others and comes to realise the importance of love and the difference between living and merely existing. He’s become aloof and inflexible, but once he becomes involved with Robert, the real Alistair, the man who is decent, kind and funny, begins to emerge, and Ms. Sebastian does a very good job of having him recognise just how far from his true self he had strayed. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Alistair and Gilbert, which is well done and feels very ‘brotherly’. It’s clear that the two care for each other very much, but have lost some of that feeling in recent years because Alistair’s need to be all that is respectable and proper has caused him to lose sight of what’s really important in life. I liked Charity and her determination to hold on to her independence; I liked her gumption and the way she forces Alistair to see that the rules that govern his life don’t work for everybody.
There are some good, meaty points being made about what it’s like not to fit into established roles, about how few options were available to women and the way society treated those who didn’t wish to conform – which is why I was disappointed when the conflict in the romance boiled down to a very old chestnut, and one I’m not particularly fond of – the ‘I will not let you sacrifice yourself by marrying me because I am not suitable’ one, which always feels as though one person is telling the other that they’re stupid and don’t know their own mind. It’s not that Charity is wrong to point the problems out to Alistair – they’re undoubtedly bigger problems than face many a cross-class couple in historical romance – it’s that she’s prepared to ride roughshod over his feelings rather than try to hash out a solution that will work for both of them that I didn’t like. I also found it more than a little jarring that a man who was trying so hard to be as unlike his father as possible didn’t think twice about the fact that he would be doing to his own (future) children exactly what his father had done in making his children a topic of gossip and scandal in a society that, sadly, did visit the sins of the father upon subsequent generations.
Even with those reservations, I liked – although I didn’t love – Unmasked by the Marquess and am going to give it a cautious recommendation. The writing is sharp and witty, and I liked the principals and secondary characters. But while the relationship between Alistair and Charity has plenty of sexual tension and their verbal exchanges are entertaining, the romance is somewhat lacking in the early stages and I never got rid of that feeling that I’d missed something amid all the busy-ness of the rest of the plot.