Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
I’ve been meaning to get to this one for a while, and finally got my hands on a copy via my library’s consortium.
See this review on Goodreads
Details at a glance:
Title: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Series/Standalone: Series (book 1)
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Genre: YA Historical/Adventure
First published: 2017
Format: Hardcover (library)
Pairings: M/M, some M/F
Sexual content: Nudity and bodily functions leading up to the act (sex is never described in itself)
Rep: Bisexual male MC who is an alcoholic and a parental abuse survivor with PTSD, black biracial queer male LI with epilepsy, heavily-implied aroace character, other black supporting characters, background queer characters
Content warnings: suicide jokes (often hiding true suicidal ideation), suicidal ideation, ableist language, period ableism, period racism, period islamophobia, period homophobia, period sexism, hints of cissexism, epileptic fits, disability acquired through severe injury during the narrative, alcoholism, parental abuse
Hoo, boy. This one is hard to review. I found it extremely enjoyable and ended up getting super invested, but there are a few things that didn’t sit quite right with me, which meant picking a Goodreads rating was difficult. Before I get into those, let me just say this book is set in roughly the 1720s, because I didn’t actually know that until I was reading the author’s note at the end.
Now, I’m going to split this review into two parts: the good and the bad.
I really enjoyed this book and read most of it in one day… and practically one sitting. It’s actually broken me out of a massive reading slump that has also resulted in me neglecting my blog for about two months. It’s the kind of story you can just crawl into and live in for a while.
The characters are amazing. Monty, as much of a pain as he is, can be very witty and charming when he wants to be. A lot of his behaviour stems from unresolved trauma due to his father’s abuse, and a lot of the narrative involves coming to terms with that and moving beyond his trauma-induced behaviours that damage his relationship with the people he cares about, and also the extremely unforgiving society as a whole. Another thing I really liked about having Monty as a character was the fact he wasn’t brave. At all. He was small and privileged and had no idea how the world worked, and the narrative did not imbue with some kind of magical acquisition of skills. He spent a lot of the novel frightened and squeamish.
Percy is more reserved and responsible, and is a good foil at times. The two of them care deeply for each other, even if Monty can be a little self-absorbed. A lot self-absorbed. Percy is a very kind person, which makes it difficult for him to enforce his boundaries even with people he cares about. He has to deal with a lot of problems because of his race and epilepsy, and that has certainly informed the more reserved, logical, conscientious way he interacts with the world.
Monty and Percy have an extremely close friendship, and Monty’s romantic (and sexual) feelings towards him are complicated by the fact they live in an era where it is illegal to act on those feelings. Monty’s fears and traumas cause problems between the two of them, and at times it is difficult for them to have honest conversations with each other.
The writing is also often at its most beautiful when Monty is just… looking at Percy. It just so happens that characters staring at people they love results in some of my favourite writing ever. I’m a sap. Also Percy is wonderful and Monty has good taste.
Not to mention there were a lot of sweet, tender moments between them and also other characters. It’s amazing how much of a low-moving disaster Monty is, and how many people roll up there sleeves and try to do something about it. Some of those people are asshats trying to start drama, but many also aren’t. Some of the kindest people in the story are surprising to me.
Felicity was also an amazing character and her development was a sight to see. More accurately, Monty learned a lot more about his sister so his view of her changed as he, and the readers, began to understand what was going on with her. She’s intelligent and resourceful and I love her to pieces. It takes some serious guts to do some of the stuff she had to do, and often she would roll up her sleeves and get on with it while the guys were still freaking out. I also appreciated that, even though she had clearly absorbed a lot of society’s homophobia, she made an effort to understand her brother. After a fashion. She is harsh on him about their father’s behaviour for a while, but it doesn’t stay that way permanently.
1720s Europe was an extremely homophobic society and same-gender relations, especially between men, were illegal. That affects the way Monty has to find his way through life, and is a factor in his father’s abuse towards him. Monty has also developed a sense of who may be like him, and he uses that sense in interesting ways. Funnily enough, the one person who he can’t figure out is Percy.
Also, the pirates were really cool and Scipio is the light of my life. I can’t say more because spoilers, but I love him and the way he interacted with our three major characters.
Also, I am going to fight Monty’s father. Join me. We ride at dawn.
The Bad, or at Least Questionable
As much as I enjoyed the story, it’s hard to get away from the fact most of it is centered around a cure-seeking narrative. Furthermore, the cure-seeking is mostly on Monty’s end for Percy’s sake, and Percy doesn’t get a word in edgewise. This is dealt with later in the story, but it was still discomforting for the duration of the novel until then.
I enjoyed Monty as a character most of the time, but I found it extremely awkward being in his head when he was spouting a lot of ignorance about sexism, racism and ableism. There were times when he’d practically walk over Percy’s wishes in particular and, while he is usually called on his bullshit, it was still extremely frustrating. If the author had been a POC, it probably wouldn’t have been as much of an issue for me.
I also really hated the part of the plot at the summer ball, since it was super early in the story for something to go that ridiculously wrong, and also to be slapped in the face with that many horrible people at once. That’s probably personal preference, and the annoyance died down after a while.
Monty also makes a lot of suicide and self-harm jokes/exaggerations during the narrative. While a lot of them are an attempt to laugh off genuine feelings, I still think it’s worth mentioning because they could easily be overwhelming for someone not in the right headspace.
Also, while I personally was cool with it in this situation, Monty does meet the depraved bisexual stereotype. He’s promiscuous and parties and drinks to excess. I went into this aware of that and decided it didn’t bother me, but I know other bi readers have strongly disliked it.
I really enjoyed The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue but have a few reservations that stopped me from being completely absorbed into the story world. It seems to me that Mackenzi Lee made an effort to explore the issues these characters had to face due to the time period, which is a good thing, but I’m not sure about the way it’s handled all the time.
The characters and the story, despite my issues, were really strong and Monty had an excellent narrative voice with a good balance of humour and pathos. I found myself extremely invested in Monty, Percy and Felicity’s stories and am interested in reading more about them.
This book got me out of a reading slump, so I’m definitely grateful for that.