#IMWAYR: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
I had a wonderfully relaxing spring break this past week, during which I also got to visit a few friends, which was wonderful! Now it's back to college classes once again, but I feel like my priorities were reset a little bit—I'm hoping I'll be able to remember that my free time matters too! (He says, right before totally going back to his frantic, exhausting, boundary-free lifestyle...) I'm writing this post much later at night than I would like, so perhaps we're back to the same chaos. But at least I finished reading a book—that's a win in and of itself!
Anyway, before I get on with the post, I do want to mention that the winner of last week's giveaway of The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin is...
Donna (who is also a fellow blogger)!
Congratulations! And thanks so much to everyone who entered—I hope you all get a chance to try this wonderful book regardless!
Now for the post! Today, I'm recommending a wonderful YA novel: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee.
By the way, this book is a young adult (YA) novel, not a middle grade (MG) novel, and it contains mature content.
Also, I will include a content warning for some physical abuse.
This book, a Stonewall Honor Book (!), is one I was actually buddy-reading with a friend of mine—I was actually unfamiliar with that concept until she introduced me to it (basically, you read a book at the same time and talk about it—what's not to love?). I'm really glad we did this, because I've been waiting to read this book since the Big Book Summer Challenge, it's a recommendation of my mom's (and she recommends the best books—in case it's not clear yet, she's just the best all around!), and it's really fun to get to talk about a cool book with a cool friend!
So here's the publisher's description of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue:
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.
I really enjoyed this book, but review will likely be hopelessly disorganized and ramble-y, because I've been so busy that I had to read this book over several months, and I've probably forgotten many of my favorite details by now. But here goes!
One thing that struck me about this novel is that it wasn't quite what I expected. If you're expecting a super-obnoxious protagonist who you won't like doing things that nobody wants to hear about, well, (mostly) think again. And if the two words "harrowing manhunt" from the publisher's description didn't quite sink in, well, think again!
Basically, this book is the story of a character whose cleverness, quick wit, and relatable cynicism will keep you on his side even as he makes a brief-and-yet-not-at-all-brief string of terrible decisions. And one of those terrible decisions...well, let's just say it puts Monty and his companions, Percy and his sister Felicity, on the opposite side of a few people. And let's just say that those people happen to be very violent and terrifying! So what ensues is an intriguing combination of beautiful global settings in the 1700s and adrenaline-filled chase scenes and attempts to escape the story's villains. (Oh, and did I mention that a bit of a mystery comes into play too?) And because it's all narrated by Monty, not only do we have the eternally humorous situation of Monty using noble, archaic language to describe his less-than-noble pursuits, but we also see an almost-shockingly insightful look at Monty's psyche as he navigates his past family history, his present tendencies, and the future he might want for himself. In short: quite a bit happens!
So let's dissect a few of those elements in more detail. I want to be clear: this book isn't necessarily an uplifting read. I mean, getting chased by people who want to kill you doesn't tend to add a hopeful tinge to most stories, and seeing Monty make a slight fool of himself early on is kind of hilarious, but also not the most fun either! But I think what's possibly the most painful is exploring Monty's own internal struggles—as you can imagine, being queer, reckless, and a bit inappropriate in buttoned-up 1700s England is already hard enough, but the difficult experiences that pushed Monty to where he was definitely don't help. It hurts to see some of what Monty went through, but it's also an important reason why we're able to connect with him as a character—he does change, but even before he does, we at least know why he acts the way he does, even if it's not fun to watch.
But it is important to note, there are quite a few things that are fun to watch in this story! I mean, Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all ridiculously delightful characters. Monty is flat-out hilarious—he narrates the story, and you will at least laugh in your head quite a few times (and maybe out loud too!). Percy is incredibly well-fleshed-out too—he's a compassionate companion to Monty, but he's also dealing with his own crises (not the least of which is being biracial in the 1700s), and he needs Monty to be there for him too. And their connection...well, let's just say that many things happen. And Felicity is a delight as well—she's just as quick-witted as Monty, and their bickering quickly becomes endearing, but we also see her grappling with being a smart woman in a society that doesn't accept those two identities put together. And Mackenzi Lee transforms these characters into an incredible story—the pacing is almost perfect, the length allows you to sink into the story and watch the characters grow and change gradually, the locales are beautifully described with inventive metaphors and impactful imagery, the action is so exciting your heart will almost start pounding, and in general, you will not be able to put this book down!
I will mention briefly, I'm a bit disappointed after reading more about Mackenzi Lee (the author) to find that she's done a few things that are at least in poor taste, and are at most very problematic. There was a whole thing where she was basically signing other authors' books with snarky messages (this included but was not limited to authors of color), and there was also a scandal about a book she was going to publish called The Madness Blooms that seems to have been indefinitely postponed after discussion about it potentially being transphobic toward its protagonist and problematic in other ways. I don't necessarily think these facts relate to the quality of this book, but they definitely relate to whether you want to support Lee by buying her books. But what's really strange is, with this book, if not with Lee's personal behavior or her other books, I actually found it to be impressively inclusive! There are some profound yet not overly obvious examples (and explorations) of White privilege and ableism that I felt tied into Monty's journey in a very essential way. And of course, the obvious centering of LGBTQ+ characters in a story set in the 1700s is quite impactful too. I think Lee has made some missteps that certainly don't make her someone I personally want to look up to, but I think with this particular book and these particular issues, she did do a compelling job exploring them in a meaningful way, which I appreciated.
I told you this review would be a mess, and I think I delivered—I'm not sure if I gave a specific description of anything from this story, honestly! But I think my conclusion is this: I don't look up to Mackenzi Lee in the way I look up to other authors I enjoy reading, and I probably won't pursue her other books—except for the sequels of this one, because the thing is, she has made an incredibly compelling and original story, and I want to know what happens next! This book isn't as uplifting or "rollicking" as I expected it to be, but it's far deeper and smarter than I expected too—and it is just as snarky and hilarious, which is a plus. So if you're looking for a diverse historical fiction story that you can sink into, and you can tolerate a flawed author and quite a bit of 1700s teenage suffering, then this book just might be a pretty good pick for you!
My rating is: Really good!