Thankyou to HarperCollins for providing me with this arc in exchange for my review. All opinions voiced are my own.
- my rating: 4.5 stars
- published by: HarperCollins
- genres: YA, lgbt+, historical fiction
- diverse: yes
When this book was initially pitched to me I had conflicting emotions – most of me was completely won over by the concept. An 18th Century romp around Europe featuring pirates, alchemy and a gay romance at it’s centre? I’ll take it.
But a small part of me was also unsure, the concept seemed so totally wild to me and unlike anything else I’ve read I wasn’t initially sure I’d enjoy it. I had nothing to base my thoughts on, no prior experience I could say was similar.
Doubtful me needs to calm down. Because Mackenzi Lee’s historical romp is nothing short of a fucking delight. Featuring nuanced characters and a sharp discussion of oppression in history – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is all the fun I was promised with so much extra depth and complexity I could not help but instantly fall for it.
Representation in history
For me, the absolute highlight of this book is the discussions involving marginalisation and the ways in which discrimination and history intersect. Lee thoughtfully incorporates a diverse cast of characters into her story, while also maintaining historical accuracy that gives the idea’s she champions some credibility.
That idea? That history is just as diverse as the world we live in today – but history has erased the narratives of marginalised people. Gentleman’s Guide features a bisexual main character, a black, gay main character with epilepsy and an asexual female main character. These representations are well written and carefully constructed. Throughout the story, we see characters tackling with the ways in which society tries to oppress them. These characters struggle to overcome and subvert the expectations society places upon them – while also grappling with their own privilege and how their expectations and obliviousness to others impacts them negatively.
Mackenzi Lee completely blows the “no diversity in history” trope straight out the water, and I can only hope future writers follow suit. The intersection of history with race, sexuality and gender politics was for me personally the highlight of this book.
Characters you can root for
Mackenzi Lee introduces us to a golden trio who carry the story along. Gentlemans Guide is narrated primarily by Henry Montague, a rich Englishman destined to inherit the wealth and estates of his father and hopelessly in love with his best friend Percy. Percy, Henry’s best friend, is a biracial boy who’s the ward of a rich lord. They are joined by Felicity, a sharp-witted bookwork with a passion for knowledge and a no-nonsense attitude and Henry’s little sister.
Each character had their own unique arc and these arcs were well executed. There was reasonable and noticeable growth for each character, especially Henry, who is the most problematic of the lot. The growth of the relationship between Percy and Henry and Henry and Felicity also stood out to me.
The characters are undoubtedly flawed, and each acts and exhibits qualities that are far less then desirable. But each also attempts to overcome and fix their own mistakes and shortcomings – and for me that’s the most important aspect of any character, that they change and grow. Stagnation kills a character for me, but there was none of that here.
A few shortcomings
Few books are ever perfect, and I did have some issues with this book despite it being a great book.
For one, the ending was just underwhelming. The climax felt flat, and the ending too rushed. I didn’t believe each character was given closure, and while I’m pleased to here news there will be a sequel can fix that issue up, I still think it was a disappointing book ending.
There were also moments when the dialogue would be jarring, and it would be confusing who was talking to who – full disclosure I read large portions of this tired so maybe its just me – but this book certainly is dialogue heavy.
A big 2017 recommendation
This is one of those books I’ve seen floating around and thought I wanted to check out but I really didn’t think it would blow me away to the extent it has. Lee has a control over her story, and tells the important elements of it with such sharpness it is impossible not to admire the quality of her work.
These issues aside, this book is incredibly fun and unique. How many other books have you read where the main characters are chased across Europe for being in possession of a stolen box of alchemical strength?
Add a layer of sharp wit, a little ridiculousness and an endlessly interesting setting in the vibrant and confusing landscape of 18th century Europe and you’ve got a true recipe for success.
I definitely recommend this book to people looking for a lighthearted historical YA fiction/romance. There is something for everyone in A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.