Mary: So The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue is a young adult novel by Mackenzi Lee that has swept the young adult world by storm a bit. The novel is a piece of historical fiction, following young Monty and his best friend and traveling companion Percy as they embark on their Grand Tour around Europe. The boys are to take in the sights and sounds of Europe, escorted by a guide hired by Monty's father and Monty's younger sister Felicity. BUT things go awry when the group is ambushed by highwaymen. And it's just all hijinks from there. This book has a little bit of everything, which I really enjoyed--historical notes, adventure, romance, pirates (!), alchemy, and mysteryyyyyy!
Emily: Yeah so like... read on for spoilers I guess? Cause there will probably be some?
Mary: Yes, major spoilers.
Emily: I love a good pirate story. And there are promises of more pirates to come because we know already that there is a sequel in the works, starring Monty's sister Felicity.
Mary: I first heard about Mackenzi Lee and really took note when she was announced as the author for a new YA adaptation of Marvel's Loki. People got super upset about it because she was going to portray him as a queer character. Well, if they'd gone back and read Gentleman's Guide, that wouldn't really be a surprise. We both got this novel in Owl Crate a while back, right?
Emily: Yes we did, and actually this was the impetus for the YA Book Club: Winter Games, because initially this was going to be a summer only venture, but Mary could not wait for summer to read this book.
Mary: It's true! I was really excited about it.
Emily: So what made you most hype about this book? Aside from the Marvel connection?
Mary: It seems really anachronistic to have a historical fiction novel about a queer character. Lee is really invested in the historical accuracy of the character, and I think she's done a really great job illustrating the tensions between being queer in Victorian England while also trying to just, like, live your life. As she's said (in the back of my edition of the book, where she talks about history and such), there have always been gay people. That's not something new. The way she portrays Monty and Percy really makes me see them as just normal guys (albeit pretty privileged guys) trying to live their lives. Their sexuality really isn't the main issue in the book.
Emily: I want to talk about privilege a little bit with this book. Because I felt like one of the major themes of this text was Monty's position of privilege.
Mary: Yes. definitely.
Emily: Especially in relation to his two travel companions, Percy, who is mixed race and disabled, and Felicity, who is a woman.
Mary: Yes, Percy is both mixed race and disabled, which is really interesting. Epilepsy is still kind of mysterious, but in Victorian England it was straight up TERRIFYING, which we see with Percy and his resolution to go to a mental institution for the rest of his life.
Emily: Yes, like, people thought he was possessed by the devil.
Mary: It's whack. Why would people think that? Devil possession is not like...the first thing to be wrong with someone. Achoo--OH MUST BE SATAN is the vibe I got.
Emily: Yes totally. And Monty is constantly put into a position where he has to confront the fact that both Percy and Felicity deal with roadblocks that he will just never have to worry about.
Mary: And he is bad at noticing those roadblocks most of the time.
Emily: So, yes, Monty's bisexual. But he's a rich white man, so there's still a sense that he'll likely be able to get away with "bad" behavior Like he just dips into jail for a day, for instance, for stealing something, and it's no big deal.
Mary: He's gotten away with extremely bad behavior for years, it seems. Even though his dad hates it. BUT there's SO MUCH rich white dudes can get away with. Even today. Maybe especially today.
Emily: Yeah but that's the worst of his problems really. His rich dad beats him. Which isn't nothing, but comparatively, he'll be fine.
Mary: His dad also seems to be gone a lot. It's not great. Abuse is bad, buuuuut, it seems like he has pretty much free reign. I was kind of taken aback by how many times in the novel Monty is extremely dense about race. Percy is half-Haitian, so he's dark skinned, which EVERYONE notices. Except Monty. People keep calling Percy a slave, or assuming he works for Percy in some capacity.
Emily: Yes. Like I think as readers we often forget too. Because we are seeing things from Monty's perspective, and then something happens and it's like, right duh.
Mary: Yes, for sure. And I LIKE Monty as a narrator. He's really fun. But sometimes it's like, UGH MONTY WHY. Why can't he see that Felicity is not going to be able to pursue her dream of being a doctor?! Why can't he see the delicate balance between race and status for Percy?!
Emily: Percy is my fave though. It must be said. Also I imagine Percy is a babe.
Mary: Oh, Percy is definitely a babe. A shy, sweet, fiddle playing babe.
Emily: Yes, I'm into it.
Mary: Same same. I'd like a novel from his perspective.
Emily: Of course, I'm seeing things from Monty's perspective, and Monty is into it. So.
Mary: Let's talk about ALCHEMY. The book took A TURN!
Emily: Yes so. I had no idea this was going to be a quest story.
Mary: Me neither. It was all Grand Tour this and travel that. But then.... A mystery was revealed. I was SO hyped when that started happening.
Emily: I thought we were going to be touring Europe with some fancy teens.
Mary: And we did for a while.
Emily: So what happens is... Monty is trying to be cute.
Mary: Mmmmhm. And make Percy jelly.
Emily: And he steals this box from the Duke of Bourbon.
Mary: While rendevouzing with a French girl in the Duke's private chambers.
Emily: A french hussy. Not to slut shame, but... She was basically a ho.
Emily: Anyway, Monty's like "this is a meaningless box. Whatever. LOL. Jokes."
Mary: LOL a funny box.
Emily: But guess what y'all.
Mary: IT WAS NOT JUST A BOX. I got major puzzle box vibes a la Hellraiser.
Emily: SO THEN. WHAT HAD HAPPENED WAS. THEY GET ROBBED BY SOME HIGHWAYMEN!
Emily: BUT IT TURNS OUT IT WAS BOURBON'S DUDE AND THEY WANT THE BOX! Sorry, I'll calm down.
Mary: No, no don't calm down.
Emily: So now they're, like, on the run, but things get complicated because Monty finds out about Percy's illness, which Percy has been keeping a secret for TWO YEARS from his BFF.
Mary: The box was made by a scientist who studies alchemy and attempted to make a panacea. The box, likely, holds the panacea or some key to it, so Monty thinks hey, if I can get this back to its owner, maybe I can CURE PERCY.
Emily: So he doesn't have to be locked up and we can be LOVERS FOREVER.
Mary: BUT--and here's where my disability studies training kicked into high gear--he never ASKS Percy if he wants to be cured, or if that's something he'd be interested in.
Emily: Yes I want you to talk about this, because Felicity brings it up.
Mary: And Monty just silently plans this plan and convinces Felicity and Percy to go to SPAIN to find the box owner.
Emily: Several times! And Monty's like whatever. So go full Disability Studies on us. Why is this bad?
Mary: I get the impulse--you always want to help your friends however you can. But there's a problem with believing all forms of disability are inherently "bad" or a lesser way of living. People with disabilities aren't broken or living some kind of lesser life. But Monty seems to think they are. Percy's seizures are scary, but properly managed he seems to get along fine.
Emily: This is sort of complicated because of the way Victorian folks looked at Epilepsy. But yes generally you are right.
Mary: I guess the root of this issue is that by not asking Percy what he wants Monty is removing Percy's agency. Percy should have agency over what happens to his body, basically.
Emily: Which Percy probably feels like he doesn't have already.
Mary: Yes, for a variety of reasons.
Emily: Because of his status as an illegitimate mixed race child in the olden days.
Mary: Mmmmhm, everyone feels really weird about that His dad just came back with this mixed kid and everyone had to be quiet about it.
Emily: He's basically Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, which is probably why I'm like "Hey how you doin." Because I have unhealthy infatuations with literary characters.
Mary: Definitely! I didn't even think of that connection.
Emily: Oh I did.
Mary: Can we link to the Kate Bush song?
Emily: OMG NO.
Mary: I legitimately love that song. :P
Emily: I'm a snob about Wuthering Heights.
Mary: I get it. It's your fave.
Emily: There are NO good Wuthering Heights adaptations.
Mary: So the real meat of this novel, in my opinion, is the talk surrounding Percy's potential healing and what the group will do with the panacea. The catch here is that there IS a panacea, BUT! It exists within the still beating heart of a catatonic woman. I was kind of confused about how alive/dead she was, but the point was that there was an ethical dilemma over using the panacea because it would mean for sure killing her, because the heart has to be...eaten. Yiiiikes!
Emily: Yeah, but she was basically dead. It just sort of seemed to be like she's given her life to produce this cure that can be used only once. So we need to be sure whoever uses it is, like, WORTH that.
Mary: He didn't want the wrong people to get it and use it.
Emily: Right. So like, the Bourbon dude.
Mary: It was complicated--Mateu was in jail because the Duke was trying to manipulate him into giving up the panacea.
Emily: Because he basically wants to use it for political gain.
Mary: But Mateu's kids wanted their dad out of jail. The ethical dilemma over the panacea, and how it related to Percy's own agency, Felicity's medical training (she's a total badass btw), and Monty's future as either the master of an estate OR a free man in the world---it's all a lot, and it was really fun and well done. This was the rare YA novel that made me think AND was funny/sweet.
Emily: Also it's over 500 pages, but it goes pretty quickly. I read it in three-ish days, like a damn speed demon.
Mary: Oh man, I read it over Christmas, and my family kept being like WHAT ARE YOU DOING. And I'd say shhhhh. It was that engrossing. The pacing was just really really good. A lot of quest like novels get boring for me. But NOT THIS ONE.
Emily: Yes and it is very much a quest novel. It feels like there are levels they have to achieve to get to the end. Like I could see this as a video game.
Mary: It'd be an excellent visual novel, I think. Like a dating sim. I want that to be real now.
Emily: Right totally. Like the Daddy game.
Mary: DREAM DADDY! So good.
/Emily: But Victorian with a Panacea.
Mary: Exactly. I appreciated also how the novel completely acknowledges people thought alchemy was just weird science back then. it's so fascinating to me.
Emily: Yeah like Monty thinks alchemy is basically medicine, and Felicity has to be like NO THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING STOP.
Mary: Felicity's dedication to science and medicine is so great. There's one point where she just, like, casually stitches up her arm.
Emily: Yes I LOVE how she hides her medical books in romance novels.
Mary: I knooooow! Clever girl.
Emily: So boss. Sounds like we're going to end up reading this next one for more Felicity.
Mary: Yes, for sure. What would you rate this book?
Emily: I gave it four stars.
Mary: I think I did too, but I'd really be somewhere in between 4 and 5.
Emily: I enjoyed it a lot, but I do wonder about the fetishization of homosexual male relationships. A lot of the sex scenes are very sexy.
Mary: Yes, talk more about that! The fetishizing.
Emily: I don't know. Not that it really changes anything, but does Lee talk about her own sexual orientation anywhere?
Mary: She has said (and I had to dig for this) that she's bisexual, I think. She mentioned in a tweet that she told her mom she'd been on a date with a woman. Still, there is totally a culture of fetishizing gay men---like in the yaoi community.
Emily: I just always get a little icked out when straight women write gay male relationships, especially with many specific erotic details. Hello Anne Rice. I see you.
Mary: Right--because then it seems like it's really the sexual part that is exciting for the woman writing it, not the relationship.
Mary: Monty was just kind of a randy guy, and I think by the end of the novel we were approaching more of a relationship-based type of thing, but the beginning definitely icked me out too.
Emily: And it's not a realistic or fair rendering of the complexity behind ANY relationship, gay or straight. It just becomes fap material.
Mary: I was just like, i don't need this detail, but i am a prude, so.
Emily: Look, I am not at all a prude, and at points I was like, am I reading porn?
Mary: I think a lot of young girls that write slash fiction use it to explore their own sexuality, but this isn't fanfiction, so we shouldn't really be doing that, I guess.
Emily: Yes. A lot of younger straight women (younger in age AND younger in sexual maturity) use slash fic to explore their own sexuality through gay male characters. Because it keeps the male body at a safe distance. Examining distance, but not penetrating distance, and it's exploitative and not cool.
Mary: Yes, definitely.
Emily: And for the most part, Lee doesn't go there, but at times, I felt like she was going there in that HER YOUNG READERS would read it and respond to it that way. I haven't checked out what the YA community has been saying about this book yet, but I imagine a lot of baby YA reading teens squee-ing at how sexy Monty and Percy are together, and that doesn't sit well with me.
Mary: I think that having representation of queer relationships is good--and this is definitely that, but I agree that some parts were a bit much for me, and I could definitely see the squeeing. There was a squeeing tone in Monty's narration even, at times.
Emily: YES! And a lot of "OMG PERCY IS NAKED" moments.
Mary: And I GET IT, I too have a squee one when I get pumped for romance, but c'mon. There is a limit to that.
Emily: Yes. So that's why it was a 4 and not a 5 for me.
Mary: That is very fair.
Emily: So why did you give this a 4.5?
Mary: I think that it's good, but i agree i was icked out by some parts. And I wanted MORE of a of stuff, like Percy!
Emily: Maybe in a future book. We'll see! I'm optimistic about the Felicity one.
Mary: Me too. I think it'll be great. I wonder if she'll be a pirate!
As a final note, the name of the sequel that we reference throughout this discussion is The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, and it's due out in October of this year.
Happy New Year, YA readers. We look forward to our next YA book club installment at the end of this month - There's Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins.
- Emily & Mary
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.