My best feature, ruined.
“I don’t think you can claim your entire face as your best feature,” Felicity tells me. “You’re meant to be a bit more discerning.”
So. I went into A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue expecting some High Quality young adult LGBT historical fiction content. It’s got that in spades, but it also has stomach-achingly funny bits, warmth and heart for its flawed characters, and a delightful bright tone that contrasted the heavier portions of the book without making them seem trivialized.
As I said in a pre-review for this, my bi ass loves this book. This is the kind of LGBT+ historical fantasy I wish I’d had as a questioning and confused teen, so this review is going to be 100% unabashedly biased in favor of it. I’m going to structure this almost as a response to some criticisms of TGGTVAV which I’ve either seen or could imagine seeing, simply because I feel that will allow me to best mention the novel’s strengths.
Before I get on with the bulk of the review, I want to note some content warnings for this book: homophobia, alcoholism, PTSD, ableism, parental abuse (verbal and physical).
♚ PART ONE: Is it anachronistic?
Bending down to find the chamber pot under my bed seems likely to result in my demise, or at least a premature emptying of my bladder, so I throw open the French doors and piss into the hedges instead.
Wealthy young ne’er-do-well Henry Montague—Monty—is flirty, flippant, and hopelessly in love with his biracial best friend, Percy. In a modern setting, this would be a cute set-up for any sort of romantic comedy. Mackenzi Lee chose instead to have this novel set in the eighteenth century, and to have Monty be a young English lord whose inheritance depends upon whether he can “rein in” his socially-unacceptable attraction to men. Percy, another central character and Monty’s aforementioned best friend, is the son of a white lord and a black mother and tends toward wry observation and thoughtfulness, a foil for Monty’s raucous behavior.
TGGTVAV is up-front from its opening pages about a couple of things: that Monty can be a real selfish jackass, even if he’s charming, and that Monty is attracted to men. I think some readers who have been misled in their history studies or who are unaware might wonder at how “realistic” this novel’s take on non-straight characters (and especially a gay/bi/pan character of color) is (especially since it doesn’t fall into the category of books that kills off their gay characters – a really harmful trope).
Depsite those misconceptions, however, LGBT+ people have always existed, even if their terminology was different or they were closeted. And people of color have lived in Europe in significant numbers throughout the centuries. Europe was never some weird homogenous blank of white, cis, straight people—they were just the socially-accepted norm, with people who didn’t fit the mold suffering from marginalization. This novel takes the hopeful tack of envisioning a story of queer people able to recognize and accept themselves, finding love even in a historical context.
There’s also a really sensitive portrayal of epilepsy and chronic illness in this novel, though I’m not chronically-ill myself and would feel weird speaking to that representation. Suffice it to say that the emphasis wasn’t on “fixing” a person who is chronically ill, and that I thought it was handled well.
To close this section, I want to point out that the author’s note at the end of the novel actually addresses the issue of historical accuracy beautifully:
…Would a long term relationship between two English men during the eighteenth century have been a real possibility? I don’t know. They likely would not have been able to be open about it. But the optimist in me likes to believe that the twenty-first century is not the first time in history that queer people have been able to live full romantic and sexual lives with the people they love.
And if that makes me anachronistic, so be it.
So yeah, even with the funky fantastical plot-bits in this novel regarding alchemy, I felt that it was a good young adult historical romp that makes good use of its setting.
♚ PART TWO: Is it gay enough?
“I haven’t much choice in who it is I want to bed.”
“Of course you do. Sodomy’s a vice—same as drinking or gambling.”
“Not really. I mean, yes, I enjoy it. And I have certainly abstained from abstinence. But I’m also rather attracted to all the men I kiss. And the ladies as well.”
This is perhaps a little petty of me to include, but hey, I never said I wasn’t petty. :——-)
Whether or not you feel this novel qualifies as ~gay enough~ will really depend on what you want out of this novel. Do you want two same-gender characters to kiss on every page, constantly declaring their orientation? Do you want, à la a certain very popular explicit LGBT political fantasy series that I loathe and am going to ignore here, overdramatized seuxal tension and explicit sex scenes with dubious consent (or no consent at all)? If so, you’re probably not going to find this novel super satisfying.
While I love the romance in this novel, the will-they-won’t-they back and forth between Percy and Monty is not the only thing going on within its pages. There’s also Monty’s desperate efforts to escape from his problems and the memories of abuse from his father through behaving like a rake. There’s Felicity, Monty’s sister, and her efforts to be heard as a woman who wants to not be confined by the societal limitations placed upon her because of her gender. There’s a madcap fantasy-ish mystery plot and pirates. There’s a fucking hilarious scene of streaking through Versailles that had me in stitches.
There’s a lot, okay?
Also worth noting is that Monty never names his sexuality using modern terminology (which would genuinely be anachronistic), but he’s unapologetically bi or pan, to use modern descriptions of orientation. As a bi person myself, when I saw a few people here and there saying that this book just “wasn’t gay enough” or that it didn’t have enough LGBT+ content I had to take some really deep breaths to calm myself and prevent steam from coming out of my ears. Do bi characters not qualify as gay enough? I didn’t realize there was a hierarchy of gayness and that I’m not meeting my Gay Quota.
But to be serious:
Y’all. The three central characters are LGBT+.
Let me say that again:
The three central characters are all LGBT+. Their sexualities are not incidental to the story. They are all major, indelible parts of the characters.
Significantly, the characters’ orientations are not the only defining aspects to the characters. I would honestly have been upset if Lee simply introduced “a flirty bi,” “a smartie-pants ace,” and “the gay best friend” and left them as mere one-note tropes. Instead, these characters have depth and flaws and beautiful, relatable aspects to them AND they grow and evolve throughout the novel.
That’s the kind of Gay Content I like. Thanks, Mackenzi Lee.
♚ PART THREE: What about the writing?
For a time, we’re both silent. Above us, the canary-yellow lemons sparkle among the leaves, their rinds swollen and slick with starlight. Interwoven with the glittering chatter from inside the opera house, sounds of the city play from the other side of the courtyard wall—the clack of carriages and the soft shush of fountains emptying their throats. The thin peal of a watchman’s voice sings the hour. Barcelona is a handsome symphony all its own.
If I had to mark one thing about this novel that I didn’t love as much as everything else, it would be some of the prose. It wasn’t bad; in fact, it was a lot better than that of many novels (debut or otherwise) that I’ve read. The descriptions were vivid and expressive without being overwrought. There were just a few awkward turns of phrase here and there, like repeated words (“had had,” “that that,” and so on). I would provide quote examples but I don’t have a hard copy of this book (yet), and I didn’t screencap non-favorite/important sections in my library-loaned ebook copy as I read it.
I will say that the humor and dialogue in this novel clicked perfectly with me. Readers will vary in how much they resonate with the quick-paced jabs and Monty’s self-deprecating (and self-aggrandizing) one-liners, but I loved them.
“Just thinking about all that blood.” I nearly shudder. “Doesn’t it make you a bit squeamish?”
“Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood,” she replies, and Percy and I go fantastically red in unison.”
♚ PART FOUR: Didn’t you mention that Monty was a bit of a prick?
Yeah. He is definitely a privileged ass for large sections of the novel. Percy, meanwhile, is disprivileged in race and chronic illness and has to perform politeness to preserve his own safety, knowing that any slip-up could harm him. Felicity also continually struggles against the misogyny (benevolent or not) of society and from her friends and family. Monty, despite the disprivilege of his sexuality, is by far the most cushioned of the three central characters.
The author, the book, and even Monty (by the end), know this. Monty has a great character arc that I’m doing my best not to spoil, and seeing him progress and think through his fuck-ups was great. And again, his reconsiderations and self-recriminations felt time- and character-appropriate, fitting well into the overall narrative of the story. Felicity and Percy grow in various ways themselves, though I admit that Monty’s growth and the pointing out of where he missteps takes center stage.
“There is nothing good about watching another man claim your ship because your skin is too dark to do it yourself,” he says, each word a glancing wound. “So in future, you needn’t demand apologies on my behalf.”
♚ PART FIVE: IN CONCLUSION
No book is flawless. The most I can do as a reviewer when speaking about the books I loved is to prod at the whys and hows and whats of them, teasing apart their elements to find the kernels of messages and themes at their hearts. To me, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue signifies a growth in YA fiction that I’m overjoyed to see—an evolution toward recognizing the humanity and pathos of previously-marginalized groups and toward giving them as wide a variety of stories to star in as straight white characters.
Not every LGBT+ book needs to have a tragedy at its heart, or to laser-focus solely on its characters’ orientations. Give me all the LGBT+ books: pure romance, adventure, cerebral scifi, high fantasy, magical realist, contemporary, urban fantasy, thriller, mystery. The more variety, and the more voices heard, the better.
“We are not broken things, neither of us. We are cracked pottery mended with laquer and flakes of gold, whole as we are, complete unto each other. Complete and worthy and so very loved.”
The themes and messages of this novel resonate with me on a deeply personal level. To me, this is what stories like Monty’s and Percy’s say: It’s okay to be young and confused and unsure and to want to read a novel that looks honestly at harmful things while still ultimately having an ending full of shining hope. It’s okay to want a happily-ever-after for two star-crossed boys in the eighteenth century. It’s okay to struggle with your self worth, and it doesn’t make you weak to do so.
I want to wrap up all the warm feelings this book gave me and send them to everyone who feels lonely or unsure. This book is so delightful, and even after taking weeks to write this review, the sunny glow it has in my thoughts hasn’t faded. I hope it can reach more readers in the years to come.