by Mackenzi Lee — It’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction, one of my favourite genres when I was younger, later to be replaced by fantasy, and now only revisited when it’s set in Ancient Greece, by far my favourite historical period. Anyone can tell by the cover that this book is not set in Ancient Greece, though. That’s okay, because it’s not really historical fiction, either.
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 quest for a life filled with 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 year-long 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.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue‘s biggest quality is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I say this isn’t historical fiction I mean it in the literal sense, the author sets the time period as “17–“, as in vaguely 18th century, I’ve seen reviewers place this book in the 19th century, others further back, it obviously doesn’t stick to anyone’s mind, nor are there any defining characteristics to tether it to the reality of a specific year, or even an age. I find I don’t have a problem with that.
This is a mostly character driven, coming of age story, with a romance at its centre. The time period is merely a backdrop to the character development, and it works well with the tone, the themes and the narration. The protagonist and narrator, Monty, is a privileged young man from a wealthy family, whom he doesn’t particularly like, and feels mostly detached from. His closest relationship is with his best friend Percy, and at the beginning of the novel the two are set to go on their Tour of Europe, before settling into their respective roles in society. They are to be accompanied by Monty’s sister Felicity, who is going to be dropped-off at a “finishing school”, a type of institution that mostly teaches wealthy young ladies good manners and little else.
The three of them embark on an adventure of increasingly unlikely proportions, which at one point includes pirates — this is where the humour of the book serves it best, because if this was trying to be an accurate depiction of the Tour, it would crumble under the ever increasing shenanigans.
I liked all of the characters, who were all very different. Monty is superficially charming and has a brand of caustic humour that he uses to mask his deep insecurity about his bisexuality, as well as his distrust of the high society people he’s expected to interact with. On the other hand, Percy who is half-black (and from what I read elsewhere, based on the real person Dido Elizabeth Belle), is unfailingly polite and cordial because he’s aware of just how tenuous his social standing is. Felicity shares some of her brother’s fiery temper but is also constrained by her role as a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.
While the issues of inequality and discrimination were addressed, and some of the character’s growth dealt exactly with overcoming biases about themselves and others, and challenging a deeply flawed society, this was done with the heavy-handed approach typical of Young Adult books — which is to say with a lot of exposition through dialogue. Monty, as the audience stand in, was often the most ignorant of other people’s struggles and only focused on his own. This resulted a lot in characters having to explain to him that “other people have problems too, you know”. It would have been better, and more satisfying for him to realise that on his own, through the events of the novel, instead of having to be told. His moments of introspection often followed a talking down from either Percy or Felicity.
I liked the romance, I was rooting for both characters and wanted them to end up together pretty much from the beginning of the novel. But some of the romantic conflict felt a bit forced in my opinion. There was one situation at the end, where both characters are apparently happy and have sorted out all their differences, and then a single conversation completely throws them out of sync. It wasn’t totally believable in my opinion, but at least it didn’t overstay its welcome, and the issue didn’t drag for the sake of building up angst.
Overall, I enjoyed myself with The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, it was a fun light read, that I finished over the course of two days at two different, but equally beautiful, river beaches. I have to admit I was more impressed by the landscape and crystalline waters than by the book. But it was still whimsical and heartwarming, and perfect for reading under the shade of an oak tree that’s probably been around since the 17–‘s.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books