She’s not who she seems…
On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.
Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.
As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…
Publisher and Release Date: Emily Larkin, November 2016
Time & Setting: London, 1805
Genre: Historical Romance with Fantasy elements
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 5 stars
Review by Sara
I love when authors successfully merge two romantic subgenres without losing the tone a reader expects from each. Emily Larkin carefully folds supernatural elements into her Baleful Godmothers series so that the world building doesn’t get lost in the historical setting. The first book Unmasking Miss Appleby balances the magic and the romance perfectly into a story that I highly recommend.
Charlotte Appleby’s life has not turned out exactly as she had hoped. While she is grateful to her father’s sister for providing her a home after his death, she is far from a welcome member of the household. Suffering the family’s constant disrespect wears on Charlotte to the point that she dreams of finding a way to be independent but is unhappy with the options afforded an unmarried woman. Working as a governess or school teacher has no appeal and positions that offer the most income are only open to men. On her twenty-fifth birthday Charlotte is mulling over her future when a dark fairy arrives in her room claiming to owe her one wish as part of a centuries-old pact with the female members of Charlotte’s mother’s family. Wary of the woman and the magic she offers, Charlotte is careful to learn about the gifts the fairy can bestow. With the fairy quickly losing patience Charlotte chooses the power of metamorphosis. Charlotte can now become anyone or anything she wishes.
Charlotte seeks her independence in London by changing her appearance to a young man. Her new form includes all of the physical attributes of the opposite sex, but her mind remains that of a woman, and she can now experience life without the restrictions society places on a female. Charlotte – now Christopher Albin – applies for employment as secretary to the influential Earl of Cosgrove using a forged set of references but an eagerness the earl appreciates. She is hired on the spot and is quickly thrust into the earl’s investigation of who might be vandalizing his house and arranging attacks on him at night.
Marcus Langford knows he has both personal and political enemies but never thought they would stoop to petty crimes or assault to get the better of him. The last few years of his life have been marred by the scandal of his wife’s suicide and the rumors of her affairs in the gossip sheets. These recent attacks just add insult to injury; however Marcus will not let them dissuade him from fighting to outlaw slavery in England and the colonies. During the last attack his secretary was gravely injured and the new applicants for the position seem scared at the prospect of working for a moving target. Christopher Albin is the first applicant to seem cautious of the danger but still ready to jump into the position. Marcus is quickly impressed with Christopher’s analytical nature as they start searching for possible perpetrators of the crimes. ALbin’s enthusiasm for the job is only surpassed by his naiveté about the less savory aspects of London society and Marcus cannot help but like the young man.
The close working relationship Charlotte and Marcus develop causes Charlotte to feel sexual attraction for the first time. The physical responses to her interest could be disastrous if Marcus were to see them in her male form but Charlotte cannot help falling even deeper for her employer the more they uncover during their investigations. Taking some advice Marcus innocently gives to Albin about a man’s need to slake his lust, Charlotte creates a way for her to seduce Marcus in her true form, offering him clues about his attackers if he’ll sleep with her. Their liaisons become more intimate on a personal level as Marcus reveals another side of himself to Charlotte the woman while still being friendly and open to Albin the man. As the threat to Marcus escalates it becomes harder for Charlotte to keep the two sides of herself from being exposed to the man with whom she has fallen in love.
The paranormal elements of Unmasking Miss Appleby are easily integrated into Charlotte’s story as she learns about her family’s legacy along with the reader. She is unsure about her new abilities so we experience her fear and excitement at the same time as she does. Magic is an unknown force in the regular world so when things are revealed to Marcus his responses are just as genuine as my own might be. It’s very easy to be caught up in the romantic tension between Charlotte and Marcus and forget that she is wearing another face entirely for the closeness they share. In the beginning I wondered if Ms. Larkin was trying to send a very subdued message about the nature of attraction being a mental thing rather than a gender question, but things return to the status quo when Charlotte begins her seduction as a female.
I’ve read many romances with a woman disguised as a man but Ms. Larkin takes that idea to the extreme with Charlotte’s complete physical transformation. All of the little quirks an author normally folds into the heroine’s masquerade are explored and yet they feel fresh since Charlotte isn’t just wearing pants, she is anatomically a man with all of the responses that go with it. Along with all of her newfound knowledge about being a male Charlotte also comes to appreciate what it means to be female and to embrace her own sexuality. She offers herself to Marcus believing the encounter will strictly be a physical response to her attraction; however she finds that sharing herself with Marcus gives her power and a freedom that she never had before.
I could go on forever about how enjoyable reading Unmasking Miss Appleby was. From the clever twist in a standard romantic device to a story of female empowerment in a restrictive time there are many magical things for a reader to discover.