The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is Sebastian’s trade paperback debut and I’m excited for the people who get to discover her work with this outing. There were times during The Queer Principles of Kit Webb that I was reminded of the first Cat Sebastian I ever read (her debut) The Soldier’s Scoundrel. There’s a class difference, one character making their living on the wrong side of the law, and a major injury. Plus, I really, really liked it. Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the protagonists find their matches in their partners. We have two characters falling in love despite themselves, humor, and found family – which is catnip for me.
The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is set earlier in time than the other of Sebastian’s works that I’ve read. We’re in the mid-18th century, 50 years at least before the more common Regency era. I’m borrowing much of narfna’s plot summary since she nailed it and I’ve been struggling for a week to write a better one. We get our two heroes, the titular Kit Webb, a former infamous highwayman who is now retired due to a job gone wrong that left him disabled and with a dead partner. He now runs his coffee shop, once simply a front for his criminal activity it is now his entire life. When we meet him, he hasn’t much left its general environs in weeks. Next, we’ve got Edward Percival Talbot, Lord Holland, who goes by Percy. Percy has returned from the continent to several pieces of awful news not the least of which is that a blackmailer has surfaced with proof that his father the Duke is a bigamist, making his mother, his childhood best friend and now stepmother Marian (and there appears to be much drama there) victims, and himself and his new baby sister Eliza illegitimate. Marian and Percy have only a few months to concoct a plan to salvage their futures and punish Percy’s father. Marian is the brains of the operation and it’s her idea to hire Gladhand Jack, Kit’s alter ego, to rob the Duke, so that she and Percy can get the book they need for leverage. When Percy approaches Kit, it’s clear that his bad leg will make performing the robbery impossible, so instead, Kit offers to teach Percy to do it himself. From that point we watch as the two men are drawn to each other while Kit teaches Percy the skills he needs to commit the crime and Percy plans for his future. This outing also features Sebastian’s command of banter, her salty secondary characters and situational humor balances everything out.
Sebastian takes on the different elements of privilege that are tied up together and starts pulling them apart. In this case it’s how Kit and Percy are seen by the world around them– specifically in the ways they use artifice to hide. Class plays a significant role in the story, as Sebastian writes characters who are conscious of class – as they should be – and hinges much on characters moving up and down the social rungs and what life looks like when they do. I love Sebastian’s “eat the rich” mentality and how in this book she has Kit blatantly state it. It could be the thing that breaks these two characters of vastly different backgrounds, but it isn’t. Because Percy has come to agree that while the trappings of the wealth mean home to him, they are in fact not worth what they cost in terms of people’s suffering and use of resources. It is an example of how Sebastian uses her craft to create tension and release it without having to write a break-up at the 80% mark and I appreciate that about this book, much as I did with Lucy Parker’s Battle Royal.
The other is how she navigates the differing sexual identities of her two leads. Percy is pretty open about his only being attracted to men and finds himself a bit of a challenge in understanding Kit, who appears to be sexually interested in him, but does not act on it for a decent amount of the story. We the reader bounce between Kit and Percy’s viewpoints so we know that Kit is likely what we would now term a demisexual in that he feels sexually attracted to someone when he has an emotional bond with them as well as being bisexual having had a fulfilling sex life with his deceased wife. Kit’s need for emotional connection, and Percy’s relative inexperience in the emotional arena is the other tension point Sebastian works her characters through. I would have liked to see it get a little more conversational space in the story, but that even isn’t much of a complaint. I do wish I knew going in that there are significant portions of the narrative that are left on a cliffhanger, even though Kit and Percy find a way to be together even though they live in a society that has deemed it illegal.
In an interview Sebastian commented about writing to reflect identity and I find it instructive to understanding why Sebastian’s books work so well for me. “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better!”
Content notes (from the author): non-graphic violence (including gun violence), reference to past infant death, reference to character being imprisoned in the past, period-typical homophobia, explicit sex, alcohol use