Plot: Viola has had to make some very hard choices. Born a Viscount with oodles of money, land, and power, she nevertheless felt utterly miserable, until a near fatal injury on the battlefield in Waterloo gave her an opportunity to reinvent herself. Sure, she’s a penniless lady’s companion to her brother’s abrasive wife, but at least she gets to be herself. Also his wife (and her brother for that matter) is actually pretty wonderful and supportive and loving so all in all, not bad at all. Really, beyond the struggles of being a woman without the lifetime of training as to how to behave as one, the only thing Viola really struggles with is the loss of her best friend, Justin. But it’s for the best. It’s been two years. He’s grieved, moved on, and found happiness. Oh, he hasn’t? He, in fact, seems determined to kill himself with booze and laudanum and will listen to no one? What can a true friend do but go and do her best to help? Even if she doesn’t quite look like she did the last time they saw each other and has no idea how he’d react if he recognized her… Shenanigans ensue.
Hall says in the author’s note that his goal was actually to write a historical romance starring a trans heroine and not make it the backbone of the story. It may surprise you, but he was entirely successful. Being trans (not that the word would have come up), especially so freshly out, is obviously a huge thing for Viola. It affects how she sees herself and also has extremely legitimate fears about being found out by non-sympathetic eyes. As she develops feelings for Justin (or realizes the meaning of long dormant feelings), she also has concerns about whether he, as a straight man, be capable of returning those feelings if he knew what her body looked like under the make up and yards of fabric. Really though, those feelings are given just as much space as her concerns about being a lady’s companion (and one that can’t have kids) and therefore not at all suitable as a duchess.
Despite the heavy themes of gender and class, this book is not trying to hurt you. The story is really about both Justin and Viola overcoming societal programming and their fears of failing to meet expectations – their own, those of family, those of the social group. This is true for other folks too, with Justin’s sister Mira also chafing against societal rules, but being younger and less embedded in that society (remember, she spent 2 years locked up in a creepy castle with basically no one but her heartbroken brother for company), she’s much quicker to shed those constraints when they don’t suit. You’re not going to find anti-trans rhetoric in here, or misgendering. There is no judgement about people exploring their sexuality beyond the heteronormative, no attempts to stifle the complaints of women chafing against the tiny boxes society puts them in. There is no judgement of people struggling with substance dependency and severe mental health issues either (there is actually a pretty hilarious attempt by loving family members to understand this with the use of a pineapple metaphor that murdered me). Hall mentions in the author’s note that he wasn’t really aiming for historical accuracy necessarily, but I choose to believe that there were circles, even in small minded, prudish Victorian England, that really were like this, because every generation has decent people in it.
And the banter. Ye gods, the banter. I don’t remember the last time I highlighted so many lines in a book. It’s not just Viola and Justin being adorable, sarcastic little bitches. Everyone in this book is too damn clever and funny (isn’t it wild when secondary characters have actual personalities?) and now I can never speak again because nothing I say will ever measure up.
You might think, given my comment on Justin’s early and whole hearted acceptance of Viola’s truth, that the romance moves quickly. Nope. This is a slow, slow burn. Whether you’ll find it pleasurable to have the story drawn out or feel like you’re reading filler will be, I think, very reader dependent. For me, the banter really made me indifferent to the length of the book.
The one substantive critique I have is the tonal change in the last quarter. Note that I described this book as gentle. That takes a HARD turn in the last quarter. We’re suddenly thrust full on into the structural problems of that society and how powerful people can get away with literally anything, including the kind of violence against women (sexual violence too, though none manifests) that would, these days, get a fucker a life ruining penitentiary sentence but which is hand waved away with a No Harm No Foul resolution. It served no purpose to the story and for me, ruined a well deserved HEA. I’d have cut the whole thing out. Despite that, this is still a fantastic book though, and should be on every historical romance reader’s radar.