Cat Sebastian is a pillar in historical romance and for good reason. Sebastian writes deeply sympathetic characters and makes even fantastical plot points feel grounded and real.
Plot: Ash was an orphan sold to an engraver as an apprentice as a young teen and Verity’s father ran a newspaper. Upon meeting, they (and Verity’s brother Nate) became close as siblings and have lived in each other’s pockets for the better part of a decade. This is complicated by the fact that Ash has been in love with Verity for much of that time, but he’s not willing to risk his only family for a far less secure relationship with Verity than friendship (and the risk of a bastard), especially since seeing what a nightmare her parents’ marriage was, has sworn off on the whole institution (and good for her). Ash, Verity and Nate are all activists, too. Radicals who loathe the aristocracy and fervently believe in universal suffrage. So when Ash finds out he might be related to an old and powerful Ducal family, he figures it’s a matter of time before his friends find out and disown him. Might as well risk the unriskable then, no? Shenanigans ensue.
I often rant about how hard it is to do right by an enemies to lovers story, and it is, but until I read A Duke in Disguise it hadn’t occurred to me just how difficult getting friends to lovers is too. Because it is. Of course, Sebastian is up to the task, but it is such a delicate line to walk, especially when someone is secretly in love. How do you make that not creepy? How do you demonstrate the strength of their affection in a way that doesn’t compromise the security of the other person? So often these stories rely on Nice Guy-isms (stalkerish behaviour, jealousy, bitterness over not having their feelings reciprocated, etc). Not here. Ash isn’t just Waiting for Verity to Realize What’s Right in Front of Her. In fact, he suspects she might reciprocate at least some of his feelings. But he respects her stance on marriage and knows that if they were to escalate their relationship, that’s what he would want, so he stands firmly on the side of friends because the alternative would end in heartbreak or resentment.
It is also so rare and such a treat to have a historical novel focus on the common class, and in particular, people who were actively working, despite their very limited power, to effect positive change. It is so easy to forget that the strides we have achieved today are precisely thanks to people who stood against seemingly insurmountable odds, including harassment, imprisonment, and execution, because they believed a better, more equitable world was possible. This is actually a very interesting way in which the story unfolds. We have these characters that are on the very edge of progressive activism, yet when a person who genuinely understands the issues is suddenly put in proximity to real power to effect that change (since the aristocracy got to actually do things like put forward legislation, vote on it, and try to convince other fellow lords to vote in its favour as well), they can’t seem to see past the immediate situation to the huge boom this might be for their cause. It seems to me to, perhaps, be meant to comment on the ways in which even people with the best of intent can miss the forest for the trees, and that distrust in problematic political systems can also become a sort of prejudice that undermines their efforts.
For all the drama, this book is gentle with the readers. None of our characters are in any immediate danger, and even the risk of danger is mitigated quite quickly. The politics of this book are mostly personal, providing the background to explain the positions taken by each character and helping us understand why they act the way they do. Sebastian elegantly weaves the macro-political with the micro in a way few authors can.
I’ve yet to read a Cat Sebastian book that wasn’t excellent, but this one was certainly no exception.