“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” Shows History Wasn’t All Straight and White

Photo by Liza Kiefer.

Book: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Genre: Historical YA Fiction
Rating: 10/10

I never used to be a fan of historical fiction. It always seemed to fall into one of two categories: “I’m rich but it’s not as good as you think it is” or “I’m poor and it’s even worse than you think it is.” Later, I started categorizing them all as, “I’m unsatisfied with my life so I’m going to seek new fulfillment and probably find a heterosexual romance along the way. Also, I’m more than likely white, healthy and conventionally attractive.”  

But then, after a chance encounter with a list of books with bisexual protagonists, I discovered “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee.

Take the idea of a road trip across Europe and transport it back in time to the 1700s and you have the basic premise. Henry “Monty” Montague is set to inherit his father’s estate. Meanwhile, Monty’s closest friend, Percy Newton, a mixed-race boy raised by his aunt and uncle after his father’s death, plans to move to Holland for law school.

With their last year of freedom, the two decide to embark on a grand tour of Europe for one last hurrah. This sounds fine and dandy, but to keep his son in line, Monty’s father lands the boys with a chaperone to watch their every move and keep Monty away from trouble. (Trouble, in this case, means alcohol, gambling and sex with women and men, all of which Monty enjoys.) To further complicate things, Monty and Percy are forced to bring Monty’s younger sister, Felicity, for the first several weeks, before dropping her off at a finishing school in France.

And you thought road trips with your siblings lasted a long time.

A few weeks into the journey, all hell breaks loose. Their carriage is attacked, they’re separated from their chaperone and the three of them must travel across Europe with few basic life skills. Hindrances include but are not limited to: injuries, lack of funds, pirates and a duke who wants nothing more than to hunt Monty down and make his life extremely difficult.

Also, since Percy is black, white people often assume he’s Monty and Felicity’s servant. When the three of them deny this, they are often not allowed access to places they need to go, like ships or hotels. But Percy’s race isn’t the only thing to his character; he’s as full and well-developed as the others. He might be favorite character of the three, and believe me when I say that’s not an easy decision to make. And I was exceptionally pleased with how well the issues of race relations of the time were handled.

Overall, the book is a fun adventure with plenty of silly and serious moments, fantastic character development and just a touch of alchemy to complicate things even more.

Now I’ll admit, I wasn’t keen on “Gentleman’s Guide” when I first picked it up. I didn’t much like Monty and, as I said, historical fiction had never been my favorite. But since it was so refreshing to read about queer characters in a historical setting, I kept reading and soon fell in love with the entire trio. Monty’s an ass with unhealthy coping mechanisms, but he’s not a bad person, just bad with people. Percy is kind, steadfast and loves nothing more than playing the violin he insists on toting everywhere. And Felicity is stubborn, intelligent and I commend her for living with Monty for years and managing not to kill him.  

The themes of the story can be best summed up as “check your privilege,” “realize that others around you have lives as complicated as your own” and “you are better than the worst things you’ve done.” It’s a well-researched, heartfelt story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, like a lot of YA novels seem to do. The story never forgets that it’s supposed to be enjoyable.

The book’s sequel, A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy comes out next year and focuses on Felicity rather than Monty. Mackenzi Lee has confirmed Felicity as being on the aro/ace spectrum and says there will be a focus on that in the story. Since I’m always looking for more characters like myself, hearing this is something I’m still excited about weeks later.  Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to wait an entire year for this sequel.

This book really is one of the best YA fiction pieces I’ve read in the last few years. If it sounds like I’m trying to hype the book, it’s really because I enjoyed reading it that much. Having already suggested it to my friends, I want to get as many others into it as I can. So, if you need something fun to dive into, I can’t think of anything better; it’s, as Percy would say,  “abso-bloody-lutely” wonderful.

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