“The stars dust gold leafing on his skin. And we are looking at each other, just looking, and I swear there are whole lifetimes lived in those small, shared moments.”
I don’t think there is a way for me to fully encapsulate how much I fell in love with this novel. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was the book I was most looking forward to reading in 2017, and this comically tender Bildungsroman burrowed it’s way into my heart and is not leaving.
An unforgettable tale of two friends on their Grand Tour of 18th-century Europe who stumble upon a magical artifact that leads them from Paris to Venice in a dangerous manhunt, fighting pirates, highwaymen, and their feelings for each other along the way.
Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is 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.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he 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 that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
Witty, romantic, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a sumptuous romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.
“When our eyes meet, his mouth rises into a smile, almost as though he can’t help himself, and then I’m smiling too, and then his goes wider, and it seems we might be caught in an infinite loop of beaming at each other like fools. And I wouldn’t mind it a bit.”
The second I finished reading this book, I felt a sense of calm envelop me. I have wanted to read The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue for over an entire year, and have been rejected for an ARC twice! So the second I woke up this morning and saw the novel patently waiting to be downloaded on my Kindle, I spent the remainder of the day curled up on the couch, totally absorbed in the incredible, hilarious adventures of Monty, Percy, and Felicity.
The Gentleman’s Guide, despite being over 500 pages long, is a fun, light read that can easily be read in a handful of hours. Mackenzi Lee’s tour de force is a remarkable novel that is impossible to put down; it is so easy to be swept up into the story and romance, and you will quickly find yourself rooting the main characters on, laughing when they laugh, and crying when they cry.
“The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.”
Monty, the protagonist, is the star of the novel: he is a privileged young Lord, who is very aware of his good looks and uses said looks to get his way. Monty, who despises being called by his first name Henry, has been in love with his best friend for the past two years, thinking his affections are one-sided. His feelings for Percy are touchingly beautiful, and the many miscommunications they have tore at me. I wanted nothing more than for the two of them to get together, but the issues that were keeping them apart were also important to explore: Monty, being white and rich, is used to an easy life where everything goes his way, so his privilege comes between them. However, Monty also goes through some significant and heart-breaking character development, which I was highly impressed by. Over the course of his adventures, he slowly comes to understand that his actions have consequences, and he tries to become a better, more empathetic person. He learns – and that’s the important part. But, no matter how up-himself Monty behaves, like Percy, you cannot help but forgive him with a slight roll of the eyes and an exasperated ‘Oh, Monty.’
“We’re not courting trouble,” I say. “Flirting with it, at most.”
Percy, Monty’s great love of his life, has to be one of the most incredible characters I’ve come across this year. He is Monty’s voice of reason, and such a loveable sweetheart, it’s so easy to see how Monty falls for him. It is also important to note that Percy is biracial, and epileptic, which brings up an important issue that is often overlooked in the historical romance genre: the issue of racism.
Historical romance, whether it be hetero or LGBT, often features protagonists who are, more often than not, white. While there is nothing technically wrong with that, the issue that is arises is the fact that historical romance has a long history of erasing people of colour from narratives because “in the olden days” white men were predominately in charge of many Western countries, and authors use this as an excuse to not include POC characters. This is, emphatically, a poor excuse. POC have always lived in Western countries, and thrived too, so the excuses that authors spout are simply a way to get out of researching POC in history. And this doesn’t just extend to POC, but to women, and disabled and queer people too, which Lee makes mention of in the author’s note at the back of the novel. I’m so thankful that Lee made the active decision to include a queer POC who is also epileptic in her historical novel; she shows that these people’s stories have unfairly been erased from, not only fiction, but from history too, and it is high time that we tell their stories.
“I swear, you would play the coquette with a well-upholstered sofa.”
“First, I would not. And second, how handsome is this sofa?”
Felicity was a badass angel that I immediately fell in love with the second we meet her reading at the breakfast table. She despises the societal expectations placed upon women, and sorely wants to study medicine. As such, she is the only one amongst the threesome who has a strong head on her shoulders, and frequently knows what to do in a bad situation. Felicity is also asexual and has a few discussions about sexuality with her brother, which were wonderfully explained. Like Percy deals with blatantly disgraceful racism, Felicity is forced to overcome sexist abuse from both strangers and those closest to her. But Felicity is an incredibly strong young woman, who would thrive in the 21st century, and the people who underestimate her are sorely left gobsmacked.
While The Gentleman’s Guide is ultimately a romantic comedy, the novel also touches on significant issues and doesn’t shy away from putting these issues at the forefront of the book and showing how wrong they are: systemic abuse, slavery, domestic violence, self-harm, sexism, suicide, and oppression. These issues are explored through Monty’s sarcastic, immature narration that makes the novel feel so much more lighter than a book that features these topics would. But the issues are not dismissed or ignored – they are clearly shown in a negative light, and through Monty’s wry tone, the reader is left hoping that things could possibly change for the better. The antics Monty, Percy and Felicity get up to will leave you in stitches, while the sexual tension between the boys is so tangible and full of angst, you will be left breathless.
“You might be the only person left on earth who thinks me decent.”
“Then everyone else doesn’t know you.”
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a novel that many YA fans will fall in love with. Set against the backdrop of a European Tour in classical cities such as Rome, Venice, Paris and Barcelona, the action and romance will leave you wanting more. Featuring a fully-packed action plot with pirates, alchemy, and adventures, the novel is still definitively character-driven, and these characters will lodge themselves into your heart faster than you can imagine. Most importantly, what The Gentleman’s Guide perfectly demonstrates is the ease with which diversity can be showcased in any novel – and other authors should definitely take note.