Avon Impulse, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-06-282160-7
Historical Romance, 2018
How much you buy into the #woke #inclusive #progressive #diversity hype that is Cat Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess depends on how seriously you take the concept of non-binary as a gender.
You see, the heroine Charity Church spends years dressed up as a man, and she feels comfortable doing so, but at the same time, she has the hots for a man and ends up waving his flagpole for the #wokequeen float during next year’s Pride. Wait, you may go, doesn’t that make her a tomboy, and don’t we get romance novels like this all the time for decades now? If you think that, well, you should be ashamed of yourself. That’s dinosaur talk. These days, the proper term is “non-binary”, and it’s a really daring concept. Cat Sebastian is leading the vanguard for change and diversity in the genre by writing a story of a woman, er, non-binary life form dressing up in man’s clothes and falling into a heteronormative relationship with said white cis-male of privilege. #WOKE, baby – all caps.
Okay, to be fair to the author, she doesn’t outright state that the heroine is non-binary. Charity is addressed using female pronouns here; it’s just that I have seen her fans and some marketing materials pass this very formulaic tale as some kind of daring statement of… something… and I can’t resist pointing out how the whole thing is just silly. Take away all that woke Tumblr-talk sprinkled all over the hype and I get a safe, formulaic, if well-written story that breaks zero grounds. In fact, the author could have easily broken new grounds with this story if she really wanted to, but she didn’t. But I’ll get into that later. Let’s look at the story first.
Charity is a former housemaid who now dresses up and lives as a man. She wants her sister Louisa to marry well (which naturally translates to a wealthy, white male of the Ton because as woke as we can claim to be, we still want to marry wealthy men of privilege at the end of the day), so as “Robert Selby”, she approaches Alistair de Lacey, the Marquess of Pembroke, and claims that his late father is Louisa’s godfather. Therefore, she’d appreciate if Alistair can help introduce Louisa around to polite society. Right away, I wonder what she will do if her deception is revealed. Louisa’s future husband could have easily divorced her or just cast her aside if he felt duped, so I’m not sure how hustling like this is a better way to give her that girl happiness as opposed to, say, finding a nice middle-class bloke for Louisa to marry. But if that’s the case, then we won’t have this story, so there’s that, I suppose.
Alistair is already talked into helping his father’s mistress show that woman’s daughter around, but still, there is an advantage into helping Selby. Especially when he starts to become fascinated and even attracted to that “young man”. So there we go.
My main issue with this story is that the author plays it very safe here. Alistair is bisexual, although he has never acted on his feelings for men before, so conveniently enough he doesn’t care too much whether Selby has this or that between those legs. But the biggest disappointment here is Charity. She dresses up as a man because she enjoys the freedom that comes with living as a man. But does this really translate to her being non-binary? She’s just a tomboy wrapped up in Tumblr-talk to be passed off as something new and groundbreaking. Furthermore, she is another typical romance heroine whose sexual desires are catalyzed by the hero – she claims that, as Selby, she’d had both men and women attracted to her, and yet, she herself seems to have no discernible preferences or sexual agency of her own until she meets the hero.
And then, there is the predictable moment which sees Alistair deciding that it doesn’t matter whether Charity has dangling bits or not, he’d take her as any way she wants to… but then he still wants to marry her. Look, if he respects her wishes to live as a man, then why want to force her to live as his wife? Hire her as his butler and make her serve him tea in bed every night and morning then. Why not? Even better, she rejects his proposal not because she wants to live as a man, but because he is a marquess while she is a former housemaid. And yet, she’s the one trying to foist her sister onto some noble bloke! Why is that okay for her sister but not her? What the… I mean… really, what is this, people? What is this?
Like her previous books, the author writes very well, but I don’t think logic and consistency were prioritized during the writing of Unmasked by the Marquess.
The head-scratching moments aside, another disappointment I have with this story is just how easily the author could have walked the #woke talk here: she could have given Charity gender dysphoria and turn this into a 19th-century take of a romance between a gay trans man and a man who is above his station. Take away the sister nonsense and focus on this, and I have a feeling that this story would have indeed be something worthy of all those #woke #inclusive #progressive accolades.
As it is, this is just another formulaic tale of a tomboy and a nobleman, only with added head-scratching “What on earth?” moments and a lot of unnecessary plot clutter revolving around mundane society soap opera. I like well-written stories, but they also need to be well-constructed and well-plotted too, and this one fumbles considerably in the last two areas.