My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts...
Unmasking Miss Appleby is the first book in Emily Larkin’s new historical romance series, The Baleful Godmother. This book was well-written and very uniquely imaginative. A Regency-era shape-shifter, that too a woman! I personally am not very attracted to shape-shifter romances, however this had me intrigued because of its unique setting.
If you want to start from the very beginning, you can with The Fey Quartet. These are a set of novellas listed as “prologue” to this series. Set in Medieval-era England, this series explains exactly how our unique heroines come to inherit their “gifts”. I found The Fey Quartet absolutely delightful, couldn’t wait to find out how the protagonists’ descendants deal with their gifts, bestowed by a Fey in exchange of a favor done to her. Their descendants, specifically the female line, were to have a ‘wish’ on their 25th birthday; wishes that’ll grant them to have some type of special power of their own.
Charlotte Appleby was one of those descendants who had no idea what was waiting for her on her 25th birthday. Orphaned and left alone in the world, Charlotte is now an almost confirmed spinster. She lives out under the charity of her mean uncle and his equally mean family, who have stolen her inheritance the moment they took her in after her parents passed on. The aunt even called her ‘Charity’ just to humiliate her, the thieves! But Charlotte had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, so thus far, she tolerated their horrendous treatment of her.
On the eve of her 25th birthday all that was about to change...
Charlotte’s mother, who was also one of those ‘special’ women, never had a chance of telling her about her special inheritance. So when a desperate Charlotte hoping to find a way out of this miserable place, finds an ethereally beautiful yet sharp-toothed woman with cruelest eyes imaginable waiting in her room, she gets scared silly. She couldn’t imagine how this woman even got inside without anyone noticing! And she looked just... odd.
Then the woman starts telling her the most fantastic of tales.... well, she’s not much of a storyteller, our Bale Tongue (find out how she got this name in The Fey Quartet). So she’s annoyed that Charlotte’s mother never even explained anything to her. But she softens enough to explain to Charlotte that she’s destined to have a “super power” as a favor done by one of her ancestors. She even lists some of those… uh, powers that Charlotte may request for. At that time, Charlotte was contemplating leaving her uncle’s home to find a job elsewhere but she had no big prospects other than either a lady’s companion or a governess. The only job that caught her attention was for a position advertised by a Marquess, Lord Cosgrove, who was urgently looking for a secretary. But of course, he won’t appoint a woman. Charlotte knew if she could have that job, she’d earn way better than a companion or a governess would. She also had the skills mentioned in the advert. The only barrier she had unfortunately couldn’t be changed. Well, unless she could… change herself into a man?
So it was no surprise that Charlotte asked for the gift of shape-shifting. The Fey grants her wish and giving her a few more pointers of what to do and not to do, finally vanishes, leaving her awestruck and still in utter disbelief.
But it doesn’t take long for Charlotte to start experimenting with her new super power. Little by little she gains control over it. But time was of essence, so she had to come up with a male embodiment of whom she was going to shape-shift into. It couldn’t be someone who could be known easily by another person. Answer came from an encyclopedia and the handsome drawing of Orpheus in it. Definitely someone who was never seen in real life.
It was really fun to read Charlotte’s reactions who was totally naïve about male anatomy, especially his, er, that part. :p It took her some times to get used to with the body and its functions, so odd and different than her own. Yet Charlotte began to get comfortable in this “shell” of hers once she leaves her uncle’s home for good and goes to apply for the job under Lord Cosgrove. He seemed to be desperately in need of a secretary. There had been some trouble threatening his safety... the danger probably extends to his life! He already had a bruised face from an attack, with his previous secretary badly injured and unable to work anymore. The interview goes well and Charlotte ends up being hired by him.
The thing was, Marcus, Lord Cosgrove, had seen his fair share of trouble in the last year since his wife Lavinia had died in an accident. The marriage was already in shambles, with her cheating on him with his only best friend, Barnaby. She had not only ruined Marcus’s life but also Barnaby’s and a few others who were unfortunate enough to get entangled with her. Lavinia was extremely beautiful but had a shallow mentality to go with it. Marcus thought he was in love but that illusion didn’t last long.
Since her death, Marcus has gained some enemies. But that can also be the fact that he’s an active supporter of the abolishment of slavery in the then colonies in America, where many of his peers had plantations. Some of them weren’t happy about his active stand against this disgusting practice. They were getting rich and Marcus was in their way. Unfortunately, his own father was one of those men. Marcus owned his plantation after his passing. He took measures to free the slaves working there and hiring them back with fair wages. These things didn’t go unnoticed by the peers who supported slavery. So Marcus knew he had plenty of enemies. Now, how to find out who had attacked him? Who had been harassing him by leaving garbage and other disgusting things on his doorsteps or breaking the glasses of his windows? He was very angry that his secretary took the brunt of the latest attack when it wasn’t even meant for him. Marcus needed answers and for that, he needed someone to help him investigate.
Christopher Albin looked naïve, rather a fresh-faced country boy new to town. Marcus liked him instantly for some reason. He seemed way too innocent for the likes of London town, Marcus could tell as he’s one of the later, so he felt this urge to protect him. To teach him how to navigate his way around London. He also proved to be eager to work and quite efficient which suited Marcus perfectly fine. It’d be good to have a young, energetic and enthusiastic lad to work on something so important to him, which could literally mean a thin line between life and death for Marcus.
Marcus and Albin start working on the mystery of his attacks and harassment almost right away, making list and plans to investigate people who maybe are a threat to Marcus for various reasons. Charlotte was OTT naive and some of her questions to Marcus came off extremely funny to me, not to mention awkward, as some of that had to do with sex when they visits a brothel to find out one of the men from the list. Marcus found it rather surprising that a man of Albin’s age had so little sexual experience but who was he to judge? Charlotte deflected his questions by telling him half-truths and some lies about Albin’s very isolated upbringing by a scholarly father. Marcus was quite amused but tried his best explain things his way, even going as far as to suggest that Albin should get some experience himself since he’s old enough to do so.
So far so good, the investigation was going well. Charlotte was learning to shape-shift into different beings, from human to animals to even insects (!) to help Marcus and bring in info on the latest developments. They made a great team, however there was one little problem. No, make that a huge problem. Charlotte was so utterly attracted to Marcus that she didn’t know how to handle this intense physical longing for him. I mean, she was living as a man (even in her private times) for crying out loud! Her, uh, manparts would get aroused when Marcus was near. Even as naïve as she was, she knew this is not right. It also got her worried that Marcus would fire her if he ever finds out. When the opportunity arrived, she decides to take Marcus’s own advice of ‘scratching the itch’ to nip it in the bud. But she wasn’t interested in prostitutes, or anyone else. She was only interested in Marcus. Charlotte finds out a way to become herself to get what she wanted; one night with Marcus.
Albin informs Marcus that a woman named Miss Brown has some important information about a pair of villains they were chasing. The bothers were called The Smiths. These were the information Charlotte gathered as transforming into different animals or adjusting her face to look like another person. Now she found a way to give it to her employer. Marcus, of course, knew nothing of her special powers but he was impressed nonetheless by his young assistant’s progress and the tenacity (or knack?) of finding surprisingly revealing information. It made him happy that he had hired such a gem! He trusted Albin and thought nothing of meeting this stranger in a strange hotel room. But that time, he was also quite desperate to find The Smiths to discover who has hired them.
Charlotte was quite stressed out about the whole matter. She knew very well she was deceiving Marcus, but she still wanted to carry out her original plan. I don’t think she really thought it thought all that well. She thought it’d be just one night, a hastily done business to get rid of her virginity, and to mellow her intense attraction to Marcus. Would that things were that simple! She finally decides to keep her own visage for this meeting, which I applauded of, though at first she was thinking of masquerading as a sensual, young widow with supreme good looks. Charlotte Appleby was too plain to look at and she didn’t know if Marcus would even consider it, let alone going with her request.
Surprisingly enough, at least for me, that he does. After gathering the information, when he asks her what she wants in return, “Miss Brown” asks for something that surprises the hell outta him. He was thinking of some type of favor, most specifically something monetary. Sex was something didn’t even cross his mind. Well, not with Miss Brown, whom he indeed found a plain looking woman at first glance. But it’s been a while after his wife’s death, and with the latest troubles, Marcus hadn’t thought of scratching his own itch so he decides to go along. One night of sex, mainly to get rid of her virginity (according her own admission). Nothing to worry about, right? But sex turns out to be so good (?) that Marcus decides to visit Miss Brown for a second time, which she agrees to. Then it becomes a third, and a fourth… then even a fifth day. Consecutively. He kept coming back for more and Charlotte kept letting him have sex with her.
And this scenario was SO WRONG for me for so many reasons that I don’t even know where to start:
1. I didn’t like that Marcus so readily agreed to Charlotte’s proposition. They had no prior intro of any kind and it makes Marcus’s character questionable to me. He’s supposed to be a respected peer and Charlotte wasn’t a lady-of-the-night or something. Though not saintly, he certainly had his standards, or so he liked to show everyone. It also felt like he was taking pity on Charlotte on their first night since he was so obviously NOT attracted to her. That kinda kills any deal for me. But then, when their first time felt good and right, his perspective of Charlotte suddenly begins changing and he begins finding her attractive? Huh?
2. Let me tell you that H and h having sex isn’t a big problem for me. Even if it’s right after their first meeting. If the chemistry is right and they’re not doing it, I actually feel quite frustrated! Unfortunately, Marcus and Charlotte had zero chemistry of any kind, sorry to say that, which made their sex scenes tedious; an unwanted diversion. They weren’t that detailed to begin with, even then I still skimmed past those pages.
3. I could’ve tolerated it IF it was for one night, and no more. But it wasn’t. They kept on going at it regularly under this HUGE deception Charlotte was playing at, which was already making me nervous. I hated it TBH that she’d have this presumably earth-shattering sex with him as Charlotte, then go and become Albin the next day and work alongside him like nothing happened. Is that even possible? The scenario was... weird to say the least. She should’ve put a stop to it after the first day and I’d find it more to my liking. I would’ve loved to see them together AFTER Charlotte’s identity was revealed. It would’ve felt more real because then Marcus and Charlotte would been aware of their history together. But there was no sex scene after everything was revealed. :/
4. Things, for me, were fast becoming awkward at this point when they were going at it for about a week with Marcus still not knowing who Charlotte in reality was. And I, again, DID NOT like the feeling. I hate it when a character deceives another for a long time for whatever reasons, but to go to that length and that deep with someone? It was not commendable. It was only a matter of time when things blew up on Charlotte’s face, which it did. The end result was not good. I didn’t even feel bad for her because she deserved that after what she did. Really stupid!
Honestly, that feeling of awkwardness, for me, never really went away for the entirety of the story. I could not see the chemistry between them, so I wasn’t really sure what to make of this “relationship”. I can go on and on but the fact remains; the romance part of this book wasn’t up to my expectation. I loved the storyline, and how imaginative it was but I was completely bummed where romance was concerned. I’ve enjoyed Emily Larkin’s books in the past. Unsurprisingly, she hooked in this series as well but I won’t recommend it to anyone going in looking for a good historical romance, a mistake I made. But if you can overlook that part and want some really good Regency shape-shifting adventure with the heroine no less, I’d totally say go right ahead! I’m pretty sure many of you would enjoy the storyline because it IS very interesting.
I actually can’t wait to read the next book, Resisting Miss Merriweather, to find out more about Marcus’s friend Barnaby. I want to know more of their background. I could see that Barnaby was a victim as much as Marcus so I’m not holding whatever happened on his head. Not sure of the h of the book yet but I’m sure I’ll find out soon. 3.5 stars.
Complimentary copy courtesy of the author, thanks Ms. Larkin!