Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian. Avon Impulse. 2018.
I wanted to read this as soon as I heard about it. There are very few historical romances with trans and/or non-binary MCs, so it was pretty much automatic for me as a non-binary trans reader. (Though my past enjoyment of another book by this author was another reason.) The majority of my review will focus on my reading experience of the non-binary representation, something I struggled to write about. I even processed my feelings with several other non-binary folks as I was grappling with describing my experience of this book. This is a story that is very much about Alistair falling for someone non-binary and Robin being non-binary. Because of that, my experience of the non-binary representation shaped how I felt about the romance arc as a whole.
One of the things I like most about Sebastian’s historicals is the way she blatantly refuses to portray the fantasy Regency society that is so often shared in historical romance. She insists on stories that include working class and queer characters, that grapple with the complex realities of downward class mobility.
I enjoy Sebastian’s writing style quite a bit, and generally connect with the characters she writes. Not just MCs; I really enjoyed some of the secondary characters in this book. This novel plays with a number of common romance tropes, including a grumpy emotionally armored MC/delightfully alive and charming MC who wrecks his life in the best way pairing and the self sacrifice for love/I must save you from myself trope. The story itself was gripping, I could not put it down once I had picked it up. I cared about the characters, particularly Robin, and wanted to see what they all would do, and how it would unfold.
Alistair’s personal arc is very much about him learning how to manage the impact of his family on his behavior and values, and letting go of rigidity. These are compelling character issues for me, but I struggled in connecting with and liking Alistair because of his relationship to queerness and non-binary transness.
I was troubled by the way Alistair’s bisexuality was discussed in the story. At one point he thinks of being bi as him being wanton and greedy, in a negative way that felt like internalized bi antagonism. This isn’t challenged in the text. At another moment, he uses his bisexuality to reassure Robin that he doesn’t care about gender, and of course is attracted. This landed badly for me, especially as its used to dismiss Robin’s very real concerns. I honestly think the story would be vastly improved if Alistair did care enough about Robin’s gender to actually try to understand it. (I discuss this a bit further down.) It seems that this framing of bisexuality is deliberate, given this post by the author, where she says “When crafting the character of Robin, I made sure she was paired with a partner for whom gender is not a factor when it comes to attraction.” This quote gives the impression that the author thought: “Who could possibly be attracted to a non-binary person? Oh I know, a bisexual person!” (Which is not okay for a number of reasons.) Also, I can assure you from personal experience: bisexuality does not actually mean that non-binary identity of a potential partner is an automatic non-issue.
Some aspects of the non-binary representation resonated for me. The way Robin would react when someone would suggest wearing a dress, that feeling of not really being able to explain that things are more complex gender-wise than someone is grasping, that sense of not really having permission to be yourself, the joy of finding clothes that feel like you, that difficulty in untangling privilege from gender feels. Robin’s experience of those things reminded me of the time in my life when I was non-binary and did not have language for it for myself, was not taken seriously in it by others, was sorting out what it meant and how to be who I was. The questioning time, the early coming out times where nobody got it, the way there was no room for me to breathe into it and figure it out because there was all this pressure to be a certain way, and all these assumptions coming from others. Basically, Robin’s experience reminded me of what it was like for me to be non-binary in the 90s and early 00’s. I think if I had read this book back then, I would have loved it dearly, would have held it close and felt so intensely seen by it.
I’m at a different place in my life in 2018, and I have mixed feelings about this book, and about the non-binary representation in it. I know other non-binary readers have felt really happy with the non-binary representation in this story, and especially appreciated having a non-binary MC who uses she pronouns. I’m glad it was such a joy for them. For me, it was a non-binary reading experience that felt trapped by the framework of the story, that was sometimes quite painful, and that sometimes had places where it felt like the representation missed the mark.
There are two aspects of the framework of the story that troubled me. The first is that the non-binary trans character is framed overwhelmingly by lies and deceit, and in particular lies and deceit about gender and identity. I love a good con artist character, particularly one where the con has so many good reasons for it (as in this case). That said, this con is inextricably tied to Robin’s gender. Which made me uncomfortable, as it frames Robin’s non-binary transness as being about lies and deceit.
This is a very difficult set-up, given how loaded that is, because of negative cissexist stereotypes framing trans people as liars and deceivers. It leads to lines like “She kept still, seized by the sense that if she actually kissed him back she’d be stealing the kiss. It would be taken on false pretenses. She, mere Charity Church, would have intercepted a kiss meant for Robert Selby.” For me, this evoked the longstanding myth of trans people as deceivers and felt like an intense moment of internalized trans antagonism. It was painful for me as a non-binary reader.
The second aspect of the story’s framework that troubled me was that the romance arc was about Alistair accepting that he could have a non-binary partner, and Robin accepting the impact of marrying Alistair…especially the impact on Alistair’s life. It’s an acceptance narrative, centering the cis MC’s needs and feelings, and the impact on the cis MC.
Meanwhile, we have a story where the non-binary MC has spent a lifetime attending to the needs of cis people, and doesn’t really think it’s possible to have needs. Robin falls hard for Alistair, and I guess I can see the appeal. But Alistair’s love for Robin feels shaky at best to me as a reader, given that he doesn’t really get Robin’s gender until very late in the story (at about 95%), and struggles with shame and self-recriminations about being in this relationship. It got even worse for me when he started pressuring Robin to be/act like/dress like a woman so they could be together, making it very clear he didn’t get or didn’t respect Robin’s gender. It was hard to read that, to see that named as love, this sort of desperate self loathing WANTING that he hated himself for, thought was impossible, felt like he would have to give up all of who he was to actually be in it…and almost the whole time he does not see Robin clearly, does not get Robin’s gender, in really intense and erasing ways.
I get why this book might have a satisfying romance arc for some folks. Alistair changes so much in the course of the story, it is written in a very compelling way, hits many of the marks people look for in romance, and impossible happy endings can be so satisfying.
But for me, as a non-binary trans reader, it was painful and frustrating to read a story where even the non-binary character’s own personal arc is about learning that maybe its possible and actually okay to want a little something for yourself and not see yourself and your gender as a bomb exploding in cis people’s lives. Robin’s arc felt full of self loathing and self abnegation, and that hurt. I do think there is a place for stories of this sort, for characters coming from this kind of internalized trans antagonism. I would prefer that such stories deeply center trans characters, include multiple trans characters, and show a deeper and longer arc of self acceptance, and more complexity.
The core thing that felt inaccurate to me about the representation of Robin’s non-binary identity was that it seemed to be primarily centered in clothing (wearing dresses felt wrong & created dysphoria, finding clothes that felt right was affirming and wonderful, wearing men’s clothes felt like accurate expression of self). Robin expressed very little concern about the idea of going from being read and treated as a man to being read and treated as a woman by others, as long as dresses weren’t part of that shift. Robin’s non-binary identity didn’t seem connected to embodiment, sexual needs, or experience & needs around nakedness and touch, all of which are often things that come up for non-binary folks. This was especially striking to me in the sex scenes, where all these things converge, and you see a non-binary character who seems really just okay with being seen naked, receiving touch that felt deeply gendered to me as a reader, has no body-related self consciousness or dysphoric moments, is just fine with having sex in a way that I read as deeply gendered. It felt off, to me, like it was working from a shallow understanding of non-binary identity that reduced it to gender expression through clothing.
What was hardest for me about the sex scenes was that it felt really clear that Alistair thought of Robin as a woman when they were having sex, especially when Robin was naked. The difficult bits are mostly from his POV and I was cringing for Robin the whole time. The way he perceived and touched Robin’s body, the shape of his desire, his thoughts, the sex acts and how he experienced them, felt like he was misgendering Robin. (As did the way that he thought and spoke about Robins gender outside of bed once he knows Robin is not a cis man, until nearly the end of the story.) This is less marked in the second sex scene which takes place while they are mostly clothed. This all feels like cissexism to me, like Alistair is reading Robins gender based on cissexist ideas about bodies telling the “truth” about gender.
What felt especially painful was that these sex scenes were presented as both erotic and romantic. This is a common intensely negative experience and deep seated fear of many trans and/or non-binary people–that when we take off our clothes, our partners will misgender us as they are having sex with us, in how they perceive us, in how they act. To see it presented as erotic and romantic was quite hurtful.
I was deeply frustrated that Alistair doesn’t understand Robin’s gender until nearly the end, and we are robbed of seeing him actually honor and respect who Robin is while they are having sex. Non-binary readers deserve romances where characters like us are actually seen and honored by their partners during sex scenes.
I could not root for them as a couple, or believe in Alistair’s love, because he did not get or did not respect a hugely fundamental thing: Robin’s gender. Which is a core reason why acceptance narratives do not work for me as romances. I want better for the trans character, want them to get partners who get them, who see them, who respect them. How can it be love, without those things? And waiting until the very end to see a glimpse of that makes it basically impossible for me to trust that it’s real.
- Bisexual man MC
- Non-binary MC
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Death of an ex from illness, death of a parent, both in the past. Carriage accident leading to injuries, including a head injury. Blackmail. Misgendering. Gender policing, pressuring non-binary MC to act/dress like a cis woman. Spectre of potentially being outed. Internalized bi antagonism. Internalized trans antagonism. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss.
- I have had some contact with the author on Twitter.
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