Review of Unmasking Miss Appleby, as it appeared on the (now defunct) Heroes and Heartbreakers site.

An interesting facet of historical romance, as a genre, is how we can’t help but bring our modern sensibilities into these archaic milieus. True, campaigners for equal rights, abolition, healthcare reform and child welfare, etc., did indeed exist in these eras – which is how we got to where we are today – and we’d like to think we’d have been among them. But the fact is, were any of us to have been raised to believe, blood and bone, that we were somehow superior and blessed based solely on our forebears’ wealth and influence, our gender and/or the color of our skin, perhaps we too would have been supporters of the status quo rather than active participants in its downfall.

This is self-evident. It still happens, every day.

What a book like Unmasking Miss Appleby, a Georgian romp set in the years just prior to the English parliament’s 1807 outlawing of slavery, does, then, is illustrate just how wrong everything was, just how wrong it still is, and just how much it takes to act as an agent of change in a world hamstrung by its own ignorant inertia.

And it does it with shapeshifting. Along with a healthy dose of Chick-in-Pants romance.

Orphaned Miss Charlotte Appleby is a poor relation somehow managing not to poison her horrible aunt with every cup of tea she is curtly ordered to pour. Intelligent, well-educated, kind and diligent, Charlotte turns twenty-five and is contemplating the uncertain life of a lady’s maid or governess when a faerie – yes, a faerie, go with it – shows up and offers her a single but powerful wish, a boon granted to all the women of her family on their quarter-century for reasons explained in four prequel novellas. (Again, just go with it.)

Charlotte can wish for the power of flight, or pyrokinesis, or translocation, or really anything that might gain one admittance to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and of all the possibilities she goes with metamorphosis – shapeshifting – so that she can get a job as a gentleman’s secretary. Because Charlotte is a hardworking and honorable sort, and also because then she gets to meet the dashing and impassioned Marcus, Earl of Cosgrove, an abolitionist whose life is being made difficult by a mysterious opponent apparently disapproving of my lord’s slavery-hating ways.

Introducing herself as Christopher Albin, Charlotte quickly gains the Earl’s trust and is an exemplary secretary. But as she finds herself confronted with unfamiliar and scintillating ideas about life, about men and about the mysteries of sex – why does her new male appendage stand so stiffly in the morning? What was that courtesan doing on her knees at that brothel they visited? – Charlotte finds herself thoroughly captivated by her empl­­­oyer, and the overwhelming maleness of him:

Her physical longing for him was so intense it was almost pain. She squeezed her eyes shut. I must conquer this, before it conquers me.

Frank discussion of sex in an historical novel is not usually my favorite, but what sets this book apart in so many ways is just how it answers so many hypothetical scenarios one might have considered, or debated with likeminded friends. What would it be like to be a man? What superpower would you want? Just how sexually repressed would you have been had you lived in a Heyer novel? Could you really get to twenty-five and not know what to call a penis? (Charlotte goes with “pego,” by the way. She’s pretty adorable.)

So Charlotte undertakes a master class in all things sex from her employer – verbally, as Albin; physically, as herself – and even though a reckoning is surely to come, especially as the much-beset Cosgrove becomes aware of her peculiar abilities, it is hard to be as unhappy with Charlotte as we perhaps should be about the depths of her deception. Society drove her to it, after all.

And in the meantime, there is a mystery to solve, a villain to unmask and true depravity to be disgusted by. And here again, is where our modern sensibilities can’t help but intervene – the word “seduced” is used where “abused” would be more appropriate – and we are cleverly reminded that even decent people can be led astray by the limitations of their understanding.

This is not a light and airy historical, no drawing room rom-com set among discussions of muslin and lace and a perfectly delightful straw bonnet seen in a window on Conduit Street. (There’s a fair amount of neckcloth tying, however). The novel’s humor mainly stems from the innocent Charlotte’s inappropriate questions, and Cosgrove is as tragic as he is attractive, very much in need of our heroine’s tender ministrations for all his alpha ways. But what makes Unmasking Miss Appleby the best historical romance I have read all year – even leaving aside the magical element, which I love – is the clever use of standard tropes to highlight many ongoing issues in our world today.

All this, and a sweet HEA. What more could a modern woman ask?

Rachel Hyland

Heroes and Heartbreakers, November 2016