Buy The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings, #1)
Regular price $10.62
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
Format: Paperback / eBook
Reviewer: Melissa on May 13, 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I’m kind of kicking myself in the butt for not reading The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee earlier. A bunch of my friends in the book community were reading it in 2017, the year it came out, and/or were expressing how excited they were to read it at the time. At the time, however, I was mainly reading books for work, which made it hard for me to pick up books outside of that world, even when they would’ve really spoken to me as an individual.
Now that I have read, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I can say without a doubt that it was so well done: it’s a story that is funny and heartbreaking, an amazing adventure and about letting go of the residual shame of who are and living the life you want. In other words, it’s a very important book to pick up with a range of diverse representation set in an 18th century world, which rarely, if ever gets a chance to show characters like these ones in exactly this way. If you are queer, asexual, biracial, have chronic illness, or have wanted or pursued a career for which you wouldn’t be allowed to obtain in the 18th century, then trust me, you’ll get a lot out of this novel.
I saw a video interview with the author in which she says her goal is to add diversity to historical settings and stories, and let me tell you, she succeeded. Henry “Monty” Montague is a character whose bisexuality is apparent from the first page. At various points he pursues beautiful, busty women, but at the same time, he has an obvious crush on his best friend, Percy, and aspects of their relationship speak to what Lee calls the concept of the 18th century romantic friendship, or what the modern audience might call a bromance. It’s not uncommon for these characters to see each other naked or sleep in the same bed as one another. The only thing is, Monty definitely has feelings beyond that, and while he may not realize Percy does, the reader feels it at various points in their tour. The will they, won’t they tension is so amazing in this book. Seriously.
Full disclosure: there are some aspects of Monty’s queerness that were difficult to read. When he recalled some of the things his father had done and said, my heart was breaking for him. There was a part of me that wished for a sunnier picture of what it’s like to be queer, that your family wouldn’t try to beat it out of you. That said, Lee was attempting to make these experiences as realistic as possible, so even characters who were predisposed to care for Monty had a hard time to see his attractions to multiple genders as natural, making this one of the best ways to understand what it would actually be like for a bi man at the time.
What wasn’t clear to me immediately was Percy’s race. Monty and his family don’t treat him any differently than the rest of their family members, and his aunt and uncle are white. However, once Monty, Percy, and Felicity find themselves at a party in Versailles with the upper echelons of society, things become very different. People pull Monty away from the conversation to question who Percy is, and call attention to some obvious difference.
At first, I actually thought they were commenting on his queerness, but through later interactions and people assuming that Percy was Monty’s “man” aka servant or calling him African, it became abundantly clear. Percy is biracial in a time when the upper class wouldn’t talk about this possibility and certainly wouldn’t typically raise a biracial person to be a gentleman. Many people say terrible things to Percy, assuming it’s totally polite and acceptable, such as asking how long has it been since he came from Africa and continuing in this vein even after he tells them he was raised in England and has no knowledge of what being African is like. It’s the 18th century equivalent of asking, “no, where are you really from,” and assuming what the answer will be.
What I really loved about these interchanges are the discourse about race that come up between Monty and Percy as a result of them. Monty sees Percy not defending himself and topples down the whole conversation in order to defend his friend and crush’s honour. The problem with that is, as a white cisgender man raised with wealth, he has no understanding of what it means for a biracial person read as black to their society, like Percy, to stand up for himself in certain company. He doesn’t understand how Percy has to determine the consequences of his actions with the specific company rather than have the privilege of acting on his emotions whenever he wants. Interestingly, Felicity understands Percy’s predicament completely because as a woman, she is constricted as well just in a different way, so Percy is never completely alone in understanding how oppression works.
Beyond all of the focus on queer identity, race, chronic illness (I’m not going to go into this further so as not to spoil anything) and gender, this book is one hell of an adventure. It takes the characters places both that one would expect during a tour of the continent, and totally outside of the norm, and it does so in a way that builds foreshadowing and tension in perfect balance. You will be laughing when Monty gets up to his old antics; you will be shocked by some of what qualifies as medicine during the time, unless you’ve studied this thoroughly; you will cheering them on when they trick someone into getting their way; and you will be hoping against hope that Monty, Percy, and Felicity all get the happily ever afters they’ve been dreaming of…even when they aren’t of the romantic kind.
Pick up The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue today! You won’t regret it!
Buy The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue today for a great price!