Title: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 4.0 out of 5.0
If you asked me to draw up a wishlist of things I wanted from a queer YA historical novel, it would include the following:
- tender queer boys
- strong girls who are fallible but have agency & their own goals
- road trips! (AKA the only reason I’d read a Grand Tour novel)
- dropping trou before European dignitaries at Versailles
- intersectional identities
- a nuanced handling of chronic illness and disability
And man, like. It delivers. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (hi, love that title) is an adventure romp about two boys and one judgemental, not-here-for-your-shit sister who go on a Grand Tour. But because of one of the boys’ assholery (Monty’s), they end up being chased across the Continent by a sinister duke with nefarious plans.
This was an incredibly well-written novel––there is one thing I love most in all the world and it’s the slightly offbeat, self aware humour of historical fantasy set in Regency England. Think Sorcerer to the Crown and Sorcery and Cecelia and you’ve got a good idea of what I’m talking about, because our narrator/erstwhile protagonist/resident douchebag Henry “Monty” Montague has wit and humour in spades. Also self-hate, because this novel goes to some dark places for something so otherwise lighthearted and enjoyable.
And it was damn enjoyable. (500 pages, and I blasted through it in half a day. My current policy is that I’m not going through a slump. All the books I’ve been reading have just been Bad.)
Because okay, there were moments that could have afforded to be more subtle, perhaps, but this is a novel that genuinely knows, is interested in, and invested in the intersections of its characters’ identities. Monty is bi, for example, and his father is an abusive piece of shit. But while his feelings are valid and validated, he is also Peak White Male(TM)––a peer, at that––and the novel never lets him off the hook for the shit he says and does. This, by the way––and his sister Felicity, who has trouble understanding “sodomy”––is how you write periodised racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia without justifying it, excusing it, or being an apologist for it, because neither the text nor the other characters will simply let ignorance slide.
I’m quite conflicted about Monty, TBH, because while he’s obviously a hot mess and a work in progress, he’s incredibly endearing. He’s also entitled, selfish, self-centred, and petulant. A walking manbaby with good hair and a crap attitude. And his progress could certainly afford to progress quite a bit faster––he didn’t develop nearly as much or nearly as quickly as I wanted him to in nearly 500 pages of swashbuckling political intrigue, so it’s a good thing he wasn’t the only character my opinion of the novel rested on.
Because god, Percy, darling Percy, who is not titled enough, white enough (he’s biracial), straight enough, or abled enough to get away with, well––any of the shit Monty pulls––is the heart of the novel. And Felicity, who is ambitious, and academic, and keenly aware of the limitations placed on her as a woman––and aware of the opportunities her brother is squandering.
The novel touches on queerness, sexism, ableism, slavery, and abuse, but the core of the narrative is action adventure. This doesn’t mean that any of the aforementioned things are treated carelessly, however, and I think the novel struck a good balance between the two. It wasn’t too sombre, nor was it needlessly glib. Monty is a boy who’s had to withstand immense trauma, Percy enormous social obstacles, and Felicity intense pressure. They are deeply flawed people living in a deeply flawed world––and the tension this produces is a useful one that raises important questions:
- Who gets to describe whose life is worth saving?
- Who gets to be the arbiter of someone else’s death?
- Who gets to decide what “a life worth living” looks like?
- Are good intentions enough to save you from the consequences of the negative impact you have?
Sometimes I see a lot of concern trolls claiming that conversations about diversity mean that the quality of plots will go down, that books will be too caught up in their own identity politics to produce interesting content (who gets to decide what content is interesting?). And for myself, I’m often concerned that books that focus on marginality may do more to reinforce marginalisation than they do to normalise, decolonise, challenge easy categories––to tell people that no, you’re fine. I feel this too. You’re not making things up. You’re not imagining things. There are possibilities for you.
You, too, can go on adventures.
You, too, can save the world.
That’s precisely what this novel does, and precisely why it holds so much magic for me. Because there’s a difference between a depiction of an oppressive social institution and an oppressive depiction, and for myself, I found it to be more of the former. But despite my enjoyment, there were a few things that were hard for me to overlook, starting first and foremost with Henry.
Personally, it’s easy for me to look at Henry’s characterisation and say that because he’s a well-rounded, well developed character, it’s totally fine that, insofar as his sex life goes, he’s a stereotypically promiscuous bisexual person. Because 1) I’ve never pursued a relationship, and in any case I’m ace and I’m not out, so the idea that bi people are sexually promiscuous has never been one that’s affected me personally and 2) there are promiscuous bi people. Just because someone fits into a certain stereotype doesn’t mean they’re less valid, or less real, or somehow harming the community.
That said, I also think it would be totally understandable for another bi person to not like how Henry was characterised––even if for me, it comes across as a Henry thing and not as a bi thing. Because Henry does not exist in a vacuum, he exists in a culture where bi people are more often than not stereotyped as shallow and promiscuous.
At least the fact of his bi-ness isn’t the question at stake though, and for that I can at least breathe a sigh of relief. But Monty’s kind of an asshole, and reading about him objectifying women was super gross. I mean, I’m not a straight or a bi guy, so correct me if I’m wrong, but it could hardly be normal for him to be commenting on every pair of breasts he comes across? This objectification is not extended to men, though. While women between 16 and 25 are more often than not reduced to corsets and boobs, the only man whose body is an actual object of desire (good ass, plus mentions of bare skin, so still nowhere near the same level of objectification) is Percy––and he’s a man of colour, and his character exists outside of Monty’s sexual desire.
Broadly speaking, though, this was a fun romp through the Continent(TM) that wasn’t afraid to dig deeper into its characters to reveal real substance. It did many things wonderfully, and some other things are a little ????? but I had a lot of fun reading it. The romance could have been less cheesy, but y’all know me. I’m lactose intolerant by nature, and really––how often do you get gooey queer romance?