Review: Octavius and the Perfect Governess by Emily Larkin
Emily Larkin has released a new book in her wonderful Regency-era Baleful Godmother series, and is taking the series in a new direction after a series of short stories called the Pryor Prequels.
The series began when a woman and her three daughters save a faerie child from drowning. It’s fae mother rewards them with wishes that will follow the family line – as each female descendant reaches a particular birthday, they will be granted a wish. But the Fae are scary folk, and Baletongue will trick them if she can.
Previous books have followed the female descendants, but the Pryor Prequels trace how one descendant transferred her wish to the male line, and the terrible consequences of that wish.
Now, in the first novel following that thread, we have Octavius Pryor, a wealthy young man from a family of men with special, faerie-gifted powers. His grandfather is very strict, however, on the rules of how such gifts can be used, because of what his mother wished.
Octavius in fact has chosen the same wish that Miss Appleby did back in Unmasking Miss Appleby, the book that got me hooked on this series. Like Charlotte Appleby, Octavius has chosen the gift of metamorphosis.
In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Charlotte changes into a man in order to escape her restricted life; here, Octavius first changes shape into a woman as a forfeit on a bet with his brother and cousins, and visits Vauxhall Gardens with them at night. There he discovers just how unpleasant man can be, and how little power women have in his world.
When Octavius adopts a female shape again in order to teach the vile Baron Rumpole a lesson for the attempted assault, he encounters Miss Toogood, the governess Rumpole has engaged to teach his two daughters. He determines at once to find a way into Rumpole’s household in order to protect this courageous, kind woman from the fate that has befallen other women in Rumpole’s household staff.
There follows a novel of Larkin’s usual deft charm, wit and pace. She gives the subject matter the seriousness and drama it deserves, with Octavius learning and absorbing the lessons of how the privilege of been male and wealthy are not extended to others, and how those privileges can be used to abuse others. The characters are nicely drawn, likeable but flawed, and the obstacles to their love are those of circumstance and genuine conflict rather than foolish misunderstandings that could be fixed if people would just talk.
I particularly enjoyed Octavius and his cousin and friend teaching Miss Toogood self defence – this isn’t going to be a story about a damsel in distress, but of two people with agency, learning and becoming stronger together.
The shapeshifting element of Octavius and the Perfect Governess brings an interesting undercurrent, seen also in Unmasking Miss Appleby, of body dysphoria and characters that are not transgender but whose feelings may reflect some experiences of being transgender. This is the element that first engaged me with this series and I enjoyed reading about it from the male-to-female perspective.
I’m looking forward to more books in this series – and there are hints that there may be another gay romance in the set.
Buy Octavius and the Perfect Governess