The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Published June 27, 2017
As a fan of musical theatre, the combination of a rakish, devious, but lovable main character named Monty, and the similarity of the title to that of one of my favourite musicals, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, meant that my first impulse was to burst into one of its song (Perhaps “It’s Better With A Man”?). Once I suppressed this urge though, I found a quick-paced YA historical fiction novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring issues of race and sexuality in 1700’s Europe.
Part of the appeal that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue held for me was the setting. I’m a sucker for a good hist fic book, but surprisingly there are still relatively few YA historical fiction books out there. Even more unusually, The Gentleman’s Guide is set in early eighteenth century Europe, not in one of the more popular time periods (such as the Renaissance, Victorian era, or the Regency). The story follows Henry “Monty” Montague, a young gentleman who enjoys gambling halls, alcohol, and trysts with both men and women. Monty is expected to settle down and take over his family’s estate, but first he gets to embark on a final hurrah, a Grand Tour of Europe. He’s accompanied by best friend, Percy, who he is secretly in love with, and his practical and bookish younger sister Felicity. Monty’s light fingered approach soon turns the trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt though, and secrets are revealed on all fronts.
Monty is definitely a flawed character. Although he has dashing good looks, dimples, and is sometimes a quick thinker, he’s also impulsive, reckless, and an insatiable flirt who dulls the pain of his seemingly unrequited crush on Percy through alcohol. More than once Monty lands the travelling group in trouble because he hasn’t stopped and thought about his actions. Yet his ardor for Percy is real, and it’s this earnest emotion that makes Monty a character that we root for, despite his flaws.
Percy, on the other hand, is a hard character not to like. His heritage and identity as the ward of nobles, but also a biracial man in a time when slavery still existed, is deftly handled. My only complaint is that because Percy is so proper and has learned to act in accordance with social customs, because as a man of colour he can’t get away with Monty’s wild actions, we don’t get as much insight into Percy’s thoughts as I would have liked.
The great surprise was Felicity though. Barely mentioned in the summaries for this book, this lone central female character is an absolute delight. Monty’s capable younger sister longs to study medicine, can always be found with her nose in a book, and acts a bit as the Hermione of this trio, practical and collected in a crisis. I loved her slightly abrasive, but genuinely loving underneath sibling relationship with Monty and how she doesn’t shrink away from what needs to be done.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue does rely heavily on one of the oldest tropes in the book, miscommunication. However in this setting, where a man choosing to reveal his love for another man could not only result in the loss of a friend but also a fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, the miscommunication is effectively employed.
The story itself is a tremendous amount of fun. Once The Grand Tour goes off the rails, the resulting adventure involves robbery by highwaymen, imprisonment, pirates, poisoning, and more. Author Mackenzi Lee moves the action along at a brisk pace, but gives us quieter interludes where Percy and Monty can share a moment, or reflect on themselves. Remarkably, although the novel generally has a light tone, it discusses a wide range of serious issues that effect our characters, such as homophobia, abuse, racism, disability, and sexism with the appropriate consideration they deserve. The friendship between Percy and Monty is deep and affectionate, and it develops believably, although both characters have wounds past and present to overcome.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an enjoyable YA historical fiction read that uses its 1700’s setting to explore serious issues of race, disability, and homosexuality. I loved the relationship between Percy and Monty, and this book also features one of the best central trios I’ve ever encountered. I also loved the fact that the end includes detailed author’s notes that place the book into its historical context! Definitely recommended, especially as a fun summer read.