Bi Book Club: A Duke In Disguise

By Siobhan Ball

August 22, 2020



Photo credit: Unsplash/Ivonne Adame

If you've ever wanted to love the idea of Regency romance novels only to be put off by their heteronormative and classist image, then Cat Sebastian is the author for you. Packed with queer characters, political commentary, and the best disability representation I've ever met in a historical setting, her books provide all the warm satisfaction of the genre while flipping aggravating tropes firmly on their head. ​A Duke in Disguise (2019), ​the first of Sebastian's Regency Imposters series, makes a great place to start featuring delicious cheese, sedition, an epileptic hero, and a bi heroine finding their well-deserved happy ending.

Exhausted by tending to the needs of the people in her life, Verity Plum, radical bookshop owner and printer of subversion and obscenities, has abandoned the idea of romance altogether. A recent affair with a beloved friend has taught her that love requires giving up even more of herself than she already has, and there just isn't that much left of Verity to go around. Unfortunately for Verity, her childhood friend John Ashby, known as Ash, has moved back into their home above the bookshop and the long-standing attraction between them has only grown stronger through their time apart.

Ash, engraver, orphan, and presumed illegitimate, has always sworn that he'd never allow a child of his to grow up subject to that same stigma, but Verity is utterly opposed to marriage, having watched the way her radical father forwent his principles and used the institution to slowly crush the spirit out of his wife. Knowing they can't have any kind of future together, Ash does his best to squash his feelings and slide back into the rhythms of their childhood, attending salons, working with Verity on the family newspaper, and trying to keep her hot-headed brother Nate out of prison, or worse. Things are only complicated further when Verity comes to him with a business proposition — that he illustrates the dirty novel she proposes to publish in order to save the bookshop's finances, even though getting caught producing obscene materials could mean a prison term for both of them.

Unable to say no to Verity, Ash accepts, and the two of them go on to utterly fail to keep their hands off each other over wine, lewd engravings, and very good cheese. Despite Verity's apprehensions, Ash never asks more from her than she's willing to give, and she finds that relationships can exist on her terms and enrich her life thoroughly when they do. However, Ash has a secret poised to ruin everything — far from being illegitimate, he's the true heir to the Duke of Arundel, and if he doesn't want his vile, abusive uncle to claim a seat in parliament, lending his weight to even more unjust laws, he's going to have to step up and claim it himself. Verity didn't want to be a wife, and she's certainly not going to want to be a Duchess, the aristocracy and its power over the common man being everything she and Ash oppose. They'll work it out, of course; it's romance, and the happily ever after is guaranteed, but there are a tense handful of chapters involving fire, attempted murder, and Verity fearlessly facing down a violent aristocrat twice her size before they get there.

Despite staying true to the 19th-century setting, Verity is a shockingly relatable character, especially for bi women who've spent any time in leftist or activist circles. The fight to reclaim and hold onto herself in the face of unceasing demands for emotional labor and to act as the responsible adult who reigns in everyone else will be very familiar, as will her depressing awareness of how many men quickly lose their principles of equality when it comes to how they treat their wives. The nice thing about Ash is that he truly isn't one of those men. He respects Verity's personhood and her limits and treats her as an equal rather than a delicate, decorative Other in a way that feels both true to the period and utterly timeless. He's a gentle, thoughtful, and principled hero without the toxic masculinity we're so often told to find attractive, and that makes him truly appealing.

Verity's bisexuality and Ash's epilepsy are both handled extremely well. Neither character is solely defined by these traits, but they're still integral parts of their personalities and experiences, shaping their decisions and how they live their lives. Verity works hard to remain friends with her ex-lover Portia Allenby a classic woman who loves women's fashion, and Portia works hard in her turn to ensure Verity's future success and happiness. There's also the classic bi realization on Verity's part that most people really are monosexual, not just hiding their same-gender desires due to fear of the stigma and criminal punishment. Ash meanwhile takes his epilepsy into consideration when making day-to-day and broader life decisions, from making sure his workroom has a safe place for him to lay down when he feels a fit coming on to deciding to stay in England at the start of the novel because he can't risk having a seizure at sea.

Sebastian's world-building includes careful research into the symptoms of epilepsy and the way epileptics were treated at that point in history (spoiler, appallingly), as well as the creation of entirely reasonable accommodations by Ash's friends and community to enable him to live comfortably and safely alongside them. This particular kind of well-thought-out inclusion and accommodation for disabled characters is rare in historical fiction and related fantasy genres, something many disabled readers would like to see more of, and Sebastian does it brilliantly.

If you're craving historical fiction with well-realized queer characters who reject the oppressive structures of the time in a plausible, period-authentic way, then start with ​A Duke in Disguise​ — and then go on to read everything else Sebastian has ever written because she won't disappoint.


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