That’s a really long title. This is a really long post. It was going to be a book review but it turned into more of a book report. You’ve been warned.
I recently finished The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. It’s a YA historical adventure fiction story, but written with modern-style prose which makes it more digestible for today’s average teenager.
It should be noted that, while I love historical fiction, nearly all of the historical fiction I’ve ever read has been adult rather than young adult. Dunno if that’ll have much of a bearing on my review, but just so you know.
The plot centres on Monty, his best friend Percy and his sister Felicity as they embark on a tour of Europe for a year before Percy has to go off to school in Holland. Of course, things go awry and they end up having a grand cross-continental adventure instead of the planned proper tour.
To start with, we have the protagonist and our point-of-view character, eighteen-year-old Henry Montague, known as Monty to those close to him. Monty is charming, egotistical, spoiled, immature, and clueless. He has a talent for flirting, but despite this he’s bad at understanding others’ points of view which makes him dislikable at times, though—more importantly—constantly interesting. It’s a good thing we were in his head for this book, because on the outside he’s hard to empathize with. However, he’s selfless and has his own endearing internal self-doubt, which were his saving virtues.
His best friend and love interest, Percy, is eighteen, biracial (half black, half white) and highborn, though not as high as Monty. Percy is more withdrawn and disciplined, nearly always on his best behaviour and painfully conscious of how people perceive him. He can’t afford not to be, I suppose, and he’s constantly reminded of how he’s perceived anyway. He cares deeply about those close to him and thinks carefully before making decisions. He despises needing help or being a burden on others, and I really felt for him on this subject, since he’s often rescued “socially” by Monty, and they’re put in those positions by their skin colours and the society they’re in.
Rounding out our trio of mains is Felicity, Monty’s fifteen-year-old sister and the most competent of them. She’s intelligent and spunky, and damn near perfect. She’s possibly my least favourite of the three for that very reason. She’s amazing, to be clear. I still liked her, but she lacks much of an arc and seems to be there to keep the other two alive. She starts the book with a good head on her shoulders and a working moral compass, and she provides entertaining snark when taking part in typical sibling exchanges with Monty. There just isn’t much for her to improve from there. She’s perfect, and perfect is boring. It is possible that she’ll have more development and more of an arc in her own upcoming novel, the sequel/spinoff coming soon called The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. My fingers are crossed.
The characters were a product of their situation, though Percy more obviously so. As a biracial man in the 1700s, and highborn to boot, he has to behave and step carefully because any misstep is used as an excuse to blame his black heritage. Oftentimes people assume things of him just from the colour of his skin, so he works hard to prove them wrong by behaving more gentlemanly than pretty much anyone else in the entire book. His frustration from these assumptions comes through, even when our POV character Monty doesn’t understand it. All Percy wants is to be allowed to be happy, and his main arc is learning that he has to stop waiting for permission from those who will never accept him for who he is. I got the feeling he’d be a decent person no matter what his past or present may have been. At his core, Percy is a good person, and it shows.
Monty, on the other hand, is a result of his experiences in a less direct way. Though he is afforded respect and basic human decency without working for it, due to his whiteness, richness, and male-ness, and we see this through comparison interactions with Percy and Felicity. He has suffered abuse, and this has taken a psychological toll. He believes he is nothing without the qualities that afford him his privilege. His identity has been built on the idea that what he was born is the only good thing about him, and that who he is as a person is useless and undeserving of love.
As a result of this, Monty comes to rely on his privilege as such a big part of who he is, and gets defensive when it is challenged, causing friction with those who aren’t afforded those same privileges. His belief that he is undeserving of love I believe resulted in his recklessness, because he doesn’t care much for his own well-being, and his flirtatiousness, because he’ll take love and acceptance anywhere he can get it.
As the white male son of an earl in 1700s England, he’s got all the outward appearances needed to be afforded privilege in his society. This makes for interesting self-reflection when the subjects of his bisexuality or the trauma from his abuse come up.
I found Monty to be deliciously flawed with an interesting—and often frustrating—internal monologue. Even when he was wrong or I disagreed with him, we were provided insight into exactly why he thinks the way he does, even if it’s for purely selfish reasons, which we still understand anyway. For all his cockiness, Monty is a teenager with deep-seated insecurities and lasting effects of trauma, and his experiences have shaped him into who he is in a way that makes sense.
Monty’s relationships with Percy and Felicity, two characters so different from him and yet understanding of him, become the backbone of the story. The story itself, which I don’t want to spoil, is an adventure full of mystery, suspense and adrenaline. This, supported by the characters and their relationships, makes for a fun read with real characters and an emotional depth that makes it difficult for the story to leave you. Overall, I’d say The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a great book for anyone hoping for a fast-paced, intriguing story with heart to back it all up. Read it.