The best way I can find to describe Mackenzi Lee’s new book The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is as a gay Regency road trip heist YA romance/adventure, with alchemy. It’s a warm and joyous romp of a book, with a beautifully constructed romance and a thoughtful examination of intersectional privilege. And it’s possibly the most purely fun book I’ve encountered in ages.
Henry Montague — Henry to his terrible father, Monty to his friends — is a dissolute young viscount on his grand tour through Europe, accompanied by his best friend Percy and his intellectual little sister Felicity. For Monty, the tour is a lifeline; it’s his chance to drink and gamble and otherwise behave badly before he is forced to tend to his father’s estate and Percy must go off to law school in Holland. But things don’t quite go as planned.
Complicating matters is the following:
- The party is attacked by highwaymen who leave them with almost nothing.
- Monty may have accidentally stolen a little trinket that turns out to be an alchemical device of immense value, and now dangerous people are after him.
- Monty is in love with Percy, and harbors no expectations that Percy will ever return his feelings.
- Percy has epilepsy and has been hiding it from Monty. When the tour is over, he’ll be sent not to law school, but to a sanitarium.
As the group slowly makes its way through Europe, Monty scrambles to find a way to save them from the people who want the alchemical device, to keep the party alive with no money and few resources, and to save Percy, ideally while winning his heart in the process.
Monty’s chief tool in this endeavor is his charm, and refreshingly, said charm is only occasionally formidable enough to get things done. As the story continues, Monty realizes he must increasingly lean on Felicity’s intellect — she longs to be a doctor — and Percy’s good-natured common sense.
As he relies more and more on his companions, Monty must not only destroy his image of himself as a hero, but also his belief that his own life is uniquely painful. Monty is a bisexual man in Regency England, and he has an abusive father. As such, he is used to seeing himself as an exceptionally tragic figure — but he is also a wealthy male white nobleman, with all the education and opportunity such a position implies.
Meanwhile, Felicity must educate herself in secret, covertly relying on books, and is bound for finishing school with no chance of ever becoming a doctor; she will probably be forced to marry, even though she is fairly certain she is asexual. And Percy is not only bound for a life of misery in a sanitarium due to his epilepsy; he is also illegitimate and black. What Monty realizes over the course of the book is not that his own life is not so bad, but that his suffering is not unique, and that the people he loves the most have their own tragedies to deal with.
To Lee’s credit, none of the social commentary in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue comes off as didactic: There is no eat-your-vegetables dutifulness to this creampuff of a book. Monty’s education in intersectional privilege and oppression is a fundamental part of his character arc, and serves as the foundation of his growing ability to empathize with people other than himself — but as he learns and grows, he maintains his breezy charm, and so does the book.
In the end, the beating heart of the story is Monty’s love for Percy, which develops into a deeply satisfying romance. You feel every bit of Monty’s wistful yearning, and all of his elation whenever he begins to suspect that Percy might actually return his feelings.
The result is an immensely witty and rollicking adventure, a warm-hearted treat you can easily breeze through over a weekend. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a purely delightful read, perfect for summer.