Desert Isle Keeper
Unmasking Miss Appleby
It’s no secret that my least favourite trope is the one in which the heroine passes herself off as a man. I find it too difficult to believe that nobody would notice she wasn’t one, even within the idealised setting of a romantic novel. That’s not to say that some authors haven’t managed to pull it off with a reasonable degree of success; most recently, Eva Leigh made a good job of it in Forever Your Earl, by having the heroine be as aware as the reader of the difficulty of a woman pretending to be a man and making others believe it and went on to use the premise to make some insightful social comment.
In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Emily Larkin goes one step further than disguising her heroine by the use of theatrical costume and make-up; she has her heroine able to actually transform herself into a man by virtue of a magical power bestowed upon her.
Okay, okay – I completely recognise the incongruity of saying I find it hard to believe in a woman simply dressing as a man, but I’ll go along with a woman who can turn into one. But it’s a very clever idea, because once that fantastical premise is accepted, Ms. Larkin is able to create the sort of easy friendship between her protagonists that would not have been at all possible between a man and a woman, and can allow her heroine to see and hear things and to go to places a female of the time would never have been allowed to see, hear or visit. Even with that said, though, had the story not been well-thought out and well-written I would probably not have been able to accept the magical element so readily, but as it stands, the plot is well-developed, the romance is delicious, and it all adds up to a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable read.
Charlotte Appleby was orphaned at twelve and taken in by relatives who proceeded to use her as an unpaid tutor and governess for their children and then as a general dogsbody. She is resigned to a future of drudgery because there is no other course open to her; the prospect of working as a governess or companion does not appeal, and the jobs which do, and which will provide a good income are those open only to men. She has no money and nowhere else to go, and at her age and with no dowry, marriage is extremely unlikely. But on the day of her twenty-fifth birthday all that changes when she returns to her room to discover a strange woman sitting there. The woman explains that she’s a Faerie and that, owing to a good deed performed by one of Charlotte’s ancestors for one of the Fey (as detailed in The Fey Quartet of prequel novellas), Charlotte is offered the choice of a number of different, fantastical gifts. She could have the ability to fly, to foretell the future or read minds, for instance – but after thinking it through quickly she opts for the ability to transform her appearance at will, assured that such metamorphosis applies only to her exterior and that she will remain herself inside.
Charlotte proceeds to turn herself into Mr. Christopher Albin and secures employment with Marcus Langford, the Earl of Cosgrove, whose secretary was badly injured when they were set upon in the street just days earlier. Cosgrove is a widower whose beautiful wife is known to have cuckolded him, and who continues to be the subject of gossip by those who suspect him of having mistreated her, and perhaps even of murdering her. In the months since her death, he has been the subject of an anonymous hate campaign; the windows of his London home are repeatedly smashed, piles of excrement are deposited on his doorstep, and now it seems as though someone is out to do him bodily harm, as the attack on him and his secretary was not simply the work of opportunist footpads.
Cosgrove is also an active member of parliament who takes his responsibilities very seriously and who is an avid and vocal supporter of the abolitionist movement. Thus, the field of suspects as to who could be behind the attacks upon him is fairly large – is it political opponents or his late wife’s brother, who has never scrupled to make clear his intense dislike? Or could it be his dissolute cousin and heir, a young man who lives well beyond his means and expects Marcus to fund his gambling, drinking and whoring habits?
The relationship that develops between the earl and his young secretary is rather delightful. Marcus takes Albin under his wing in an older brother-ish kind of way, and their burgeoning friendship allows Charlotte an insight into the male mind in a way she could never have gained as a woman. Marcus talks to Albin frankly about sex, takes him to a brothel (not as a patron, I hasten to add!), says what he thinks, swears and generally behaves as he would with any male acquaintance, which is all very liberating for Charlotte. And she gets to see how the other half lives, to experience the freedom and confidence afforded simply by virtue of possessing a penis.
The problem, of course, is that that particular appendage starts to sit up and take notice whenever her handsome employer is around, and Charlotte is terrified that he’ll notice and throw her out on her ear. She’s never before experienced feelings of arousal or desire and isn’t sure what to do – all she knows is that she has to find a way to conquer them. Remembering an offhand remark Cosgrove made about a man’s need to sometimes scratch an itch, she embarks upon a bold course of action in an attempt to get him out of her system so that she can continue to work alongside him. I don’t want to give too much away, but the romance works beautifully, and Ms. Larkin does a terrific job of showing (not just telling) Marcus gradually falling for Charlotte (in her true form) through a series of meetings that begin as one thing and end as another. Marcus is a gorgeous, sexy hero who positively shines throughout the story as a man of action, intelligence and principle, and Charlotte plays her dual role admirably; an excellent foil, friend and sounding board as Albin, and the woman with whom Marcus seeks comfort, tenderness and pleasure as herself.
The two main plotlines – the romance and the search for who is seeking to destroy Marcus – are very well integrated, with no sudden shifts in tone or strained contrivances. And while the fantasy element to the story is fairly low key, the author doesn’t just forget it once she’s embedded Charlotte as Albin; the ability to transform her appearance plays an important part in the search for Cosgrove’s enemies. The one thing I’d take issue with is how easily Cosgrove accepts Albin’s ability to turn into various animals, but given everything that’s happened up to that point and how much stress he’s under, I guess he can be allowed a metaphorical shrug and to accept the help that his secretary’s strange gift allows.
Emily Larkin (who has also written as Emily May and Emily Gee) writes with a great deal of elegance and perception, and has crafted an unusual and charming story to kick off her new Baleful Godmother series. If you’re looking for a high-concept fantasy romance, then pass on by, because this isn’t it. But if you’re after an emotionally satisfying, quirky and sensual romance, then I’d say this is definitely worth your time. I’m certainly going to be looking out for the next book in the series, and Unmasking Miss Appleby is now securely tucked onto my keeper shelf.