The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee is a mostly YA historical romance with a tiny fantastical element that becomes a big part of the later plot, but I’m going to review it here anyway because I absolutely loved this book (and here at Way Too Fantasy there is no discrimination about the various levels and types of fantasy novels or even fiction with fantastical elements–we love them all).
This is the story of Henry ‘Monty’ Montague, a young lord from England, and his adventures during his Grand Tour of continental Europe during the early 1700’s. Along with his younger sister, Felicity, and his best friend (and unrequited love) Percy, he’s all set to travel across Europe. The plan is partying it up and having one long last hurrah before he is forced back home to learn about running the family estate and Percy is sent off to law school in Holland. But Monty’s father has other plans for him this trip, plans that do not include partying his way across the continent, and this has put Monty in a very bad mood. During one of his moods, he unwittingly brings upon their party the wrath of the Duke of Bourbon which results in clashes with highwaymen, pirates, and alchemists.
It was clear to me from the very first page that I was going to love this book. Henry is a rake, a rapscallion, and, if I’m being completely honest, more than a bit of an ass. The story is narrated from his POV and he’s pretty hilarious most of the time, quite cheeky, and more than a bit full of himself. Although, later on we learn that his glib attitude is mostly a shield, constructed to deal with the abuse heaped on him by his father and with his own emotional distress at feeling constricted by society’s norms. Not just that he prefers the company of other men more than women, but that he doesn’t really want to run his father’s estate because of everything that would entail. (Although, he admits, he enjoys the money.)
One of the things I love most about this book is that no one of the three main protagonists is really who they first seem to be on the surface, and of course a lot of that has to do with Monty be a self-absorbed little shit. Oh yes, dear reader, as we travel further into this book Monty’s antics become a lot less funny and a lot more pathetic as everyone in the party becomes increasingly frustrated with him. But as Monty begins his own transformation, so do we also learn more about the others traveling with him.
Percy seems like he has a pretty good life. His aunt and uncle accept him and have raised him despite him being a mix-raced child brought home by his father and made their responsibility after he’d died. (Remember that this is England in the early 1700’s–and while this wasn’t unheard of, it wasn’t exactly the norm especially among the upper classes.) In fact, they’re sending him to law school! But then, that’s not all there is to Percy and everything isn’t as it seems to be there either.
Felicity is introduced to us as a girl that loves to read, but mostly smut novels. I think Monty sees her as a typical bratty little sister and probably resents the fact that she doesn’t have the same expectations that he does. But this is the problem with Monty. He’s constantly thinking about his own problems while never really thinking about anyone else’s. Because, as we find out, Felicity has her own problems she is struggling with, just like her brother and Percy, she doesn’t want to fit into the role that society has cast for her. She has plans for her life, if only she were allowed to be able to go through with them.
I’ll admit a huge amount of why I love this book is Monty’s character. I have a soft spot for these types–haughty, self-absorbed, just cheeky enough to be amusing. But it’s when they go through a great character arc of self-examination and transformation that they really worm their way into my heart.
Of course the romance in this was my favorite thing. Yes, there is the entire thing where if they had just spoken about their feelings earlier none of this agonizing nonsense would have happened, but that doesn’t really bother me. When you don’t know if you’ll be accepted, and it has the real chance of ruining a great friendship if the other party doesn’t feel the same way, sometimes it’s hard to to take that leap into the unknown. I also loved that the romance was front and center from the very beginning of the story. We know right off the bat what we’re rooting for and where we want things to end up.
So, fantasy element. Yes, there is a small fantasy element that pretty much effects all the events of the latter half of the novel. It serves as a catalyst, and while not necessarily a MacGuffin it could have replaced with a non-fantasy element and it would have had the same effect on the story structure. However, at the end when this all comes in to play, it did make for a rather dramatic scene so I’m not going to complain about it much. It did feel a little odd since the rest of the story was really in no way fantastical, ‘oh ok, this exists suddenly, magic out of no where, sure why not’.
Overall I thought this was a really fun read, that was kept very light even when dealing with some heavy themes. I loved the characters and their individual character arcs, and even though the plot was totally in service of the characters it was still a fun romp. 5/5 stars.