The Reader’s Guide to Gays and Historical Fiction: Review of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee

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Official Summary: Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love

 

My Thoughts: If all historical fiction was written like this, I’d read a lot more of it. This book is the light, fluffy romp it promises to be, but it also deals with some really heavy topics. It follows Henry “Monty” Montague, as he goes on his Tour of Europe with Percy, his best friend and secret crush, and younger sister Felicity. What Monty hopes will be one last wild year of drinking and sex before he must start running the family estate turns into a series of wild escapades, each more daring and implausible than the last. This story has wonderful characters, an amusing episodic plot, and a touching romance. It deals with themes of image and self-discovery. It’ll have you laughing one minute and crying the next, your very own whirlwind journey of emotion. This book is one 2017 release you don’t want to miss.

The characters in this story were loveable from start to finish. Monty was an endearing protagonist, even if he sometimes drives you nuts. He’s bisexual, though he has a preference for boys. He’s impulsive, but well-meaning. It isn’t long before you realize his penchant for drinking to excess and sleeping around is his form of self-medication due to years of abuse (both physical and verbal) from his father.

We watch him struggle with depression and periods of suicidal ideation. He also seems to have post-traumatic stress disorder. He is hounded with self-loathing and doesn’t know how to care for other people. Sometimes he says the very worst thing he could say or freezes up with not knowing what to do. Even though this can be very frustrating to watch, I found myself relating to that more than I care to admit. Sometimes you find yourself ruining things or being most decidedly unhelpful when you should be helping and yet you can’t stop yourself.

Due to Monty’s mental illness, you have to wonder how much of it is subconscious self-sabotage. He believes he is worth nothing, therefore he behaves as though he is worth nothing. He also occasionally gets hyper-fixated on an idea, which prevents him from understanding other points of view. He believes getting the panacea is the only way to help Percy, but misinterprets any of Percy’s protests. He’s so fixated on the idea, he thinks Percy believes it will not work. The reader knows Percy does not really want the panacea, but Monty does not.

Aside from his less positive traits, he is also a very funny narrator and always has a quip at the ready. And, as I said before, he always means well and loves deeply. Monty was a character I very quickly fell in love with.

Percy was also a very intriguing character. He is biracial, his mother from somewhere in Africa. He was raised as a ward of his aunt and uncle. Percy is one of those rare characters that is genuinely kind. He never has a harsh word for anyone and treats everyone with the utmost respect. He has a natural instinct for caring for people. He knows just what to say and do to soothe and comfort.

However, some of this may be due to his own affliction. Percy has epilepsy, so he likely treats others as he wishes they would treat him. Being a queer black man with epilepsy, he faces a lot of prejudice. He has very conflicting emotions about his disorder. When he’s symptomatic or having an episode, he feels shame and dread. When he is healthy, he doesn’t consider his epilepsy a defect. An obstacle, sure, but nothing that he believes makes him in any way less than. Also, where Monty is impulsive and hard-headed, Percy is sensible and considers his options carefully.

Felicity, who rounds out the main trio, is another great character. She dreams of being a doctor and has secretly been reading medical textbooks for years. She’s opinionated and always makes sure she is heard. She also doesn’t take shit from anybody and is the first to call someone out on their bullshit. She’s inquisitive and gifted, often patching up wounds along the way.

She has a confidence about her that the boys don’t, asserting herself and marching right into situations like she belongs there. Also, like her brother, she always has a quip or comeback at the ready. More than anything, she wants to be seen as just as capable as any man, if not more.

There are also many notable side characters, including Scipio and the Robles siblings. Scipio is a pirate captain and former slave and privateer. Although he at first feels no love for the trio, he eventually becomes a sort of brother-uncle hybrid figure to them. He cares deeply for his crew and does what he can to help the kids (albeit with the promise of becoming a privateer again).

He, along with his entire crew, is a black man and he shares some truths Monty hadn’t considered before. I think he sees a lot of himself in Monty, relating to the self-loathing and inability to fight back against the people that tore you down.

Helena Robles is highly ambitious, but for very good reasons. No one means more to her than her father and she would do anything for him. She doesn’t trust outsiders, but believes she is doing what is right for her family.

Dante Robles follows in his father’s footsteps studying alchemy. He is extremely socially awkward and shy, perhaps having anxiety or autism. He frequently stutters and doesn’t really know how to be a good host. Social conventions do not come naturally to him. He also guards his secrets much less jealously than Helena. They make for an interesting cast of characters, all of which entirely baffled in some capacity by Monty.

The plot follows an episodic format, similar to actual novels in the era this story takes place (the early 1700s, if you were curious). While there is one underlying linear story, the actual shenanigans typically come, happen, and then go. Among these episodes are a very disastrous ball, getting robbed by highwaymen, and being held captive by pirates. It kept the story suspenseful and surprising, never knowing what was going to come around the corner. It’s a very entertaining way to develop the plot and never came off as gimmicky.

If you love slow burn romances, then you’ll love this one. It takes forever to heat up. At times it’s frustrating because it’s so blatantly obvious they both have feelings for each other, but they both think the other doesn’t feel the same way. They are in awe of each other, seeing only the good and never the bad.

Well, that’s not entirely true. They do have a few pretty serious arguments and Monty is almost always in the wrong. He’s slow to understand different points of view and his first instinct is to sabotage. This is one of those aforementioned irritating things about Monty. Much of it is born of his own self-doubt, but it comes across as very selfish and inconsiderate. Which I suppose it is as well. But this is first and foremost Monty’s coming-of-age story and so we know he is inevitably going to learn that he was very wrong.

Aside from this, the two have excellent banter and inside jokes. They would do anything for each other. Percy goes on this adventure for Monty and, at one point, Monty says he would rather die than lead the villain to Percy (and Felicity, but it still counts). By the end, you want nothing more than  for the two to live happily ever after, despite everything.

Thematically, this novel explores image and self-discovery. As I said before, this implausible Tour is Monty’s wake-up call. He learns a lot about himself, as well as how he interacts with other people. Felicity also seems to begin her own road to self-discovery, but I imagine we’ll get more of that in the sequel, which will be from her point of view. Image plays a huge role in how the characters interact and view each other.

Monty has a reputation as a rake and a drunk, but it’s really his way of dealing with his pain. Percy is viewed as less than for his skin color and because of his epilepsy, but really is the best of them. Felicity is bound by societal expectations for women, thus why she puts the covers of romance novels over the medical books she’s actually reading. Labels force certain behavior on people, whether that be pirate, rake, or duke. In exploring the value of one’s image, we also explore the value of one’s reality.

As you may have noticed, this book is chalk-full of diversity. Monty is bisexual and Percy is some other form of queer (although the suggestion seems to be he’s gay, since he’s noted to never seem interested in any girls). Percy is biracial and physically dark-skinned, while Scipio and his crew are all black. Percy and Monty also count for disabled rep, as Percy has epilepsy and Monty has depression and PTSD. We are inside Monty’s head as he experiences panic attacks and flashbacks, bearing witness to his self-hatred and suicidal thoughts. Dante has some form of anxiety or autism.

Lee did lots of research on the era so she could accurately depict all of these variations of person and how they were viewed at the time. Percy and Scipio are both based on real people. Lee treats each of these things respectfully and accurately, making this deliciously diverse and filled with great representation.

I’ll be frank with you: I went into this book expecting nothing more than a light, funny gay romp. But it was so much more than that. I cried so many times as these characters went through their struggles or thought back to ugly times. I spent most of the book thinking it was a four-star book, but the climax and ending really put it over the top. This is a book with a lot of heart and I know I’ll be left thinking about it for a long time to come. If you’re looking for a new queer read or just an amazing new adventure, definitely check this one out. In all its vices and virtuousness, this book is a stand-out young adult novel and a brilliant series opener. I can’t wait to read what Mackenzi Lee puts out next.

 

My Rating: 5/5

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3 thoughts on “The Reader’s Guide to Gays and Historical Fiction: Review of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee

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