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The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is the nerdy queer girl YA fantasy we deserve

This madcap YA fantasy celebrates femininities both conventional and otherwise.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee Katherine Tegen Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, the new YA fantasy by Mackenzi Lee, froths over with swashbuckling glee. It is a madcap caper of a book, full of clever, nerdy Regency girls foiling dastardly schemes and forging complex friendships (and maybe more!) with one another, and it is a pure pleasure to read.

The Lady’s Guide is a companion novel to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, one of the most purely fun books of last summer. That novel told the story of Monty, a dissolute bisexual viscount in a fantasy Britain, and his adventures on his Grand Tour. The Lady’s Guide picks up shortly after The Gentleman’s Guide left off, and turns its focus from Monty to Felicity — Monty’s fiercely intellectual little sister — and her relentless ambition to become a doctor.

Felicity has no interest in a conventional life or conventional expressions of femininity; she wants to learn everything there is to know about the human body and how it works, and then she wants to make her own discoveries. “Every time I blink or breathe or twitch or stretch, every time I feel pain or awake or alive, I want to know why,” she thinks ferociously. “Half my heart is this hunger.”

The hospitals to which Felicity applies, however, are less than encouraging. So Felicity sets off on a voyage of her own, in search of a doctor who will be willing to train her. And along the way, she teams up with two other girls, each of whom pushes back in different ways against Felicity’s stubborn, nerdy arrogance.

There’s her estranged childhood friend Johanna, who is both a brilliant naturalist and someone who unapologetically loves giant pink bows and all the trappings of high femininity. And then there’s Sim, a sword-wielding Muslim pirate who continually pushes Felicity to consider how much of the medical science she so admires was shaped by colonialism.

As the trio make their way across Europe, Felicity is forced to rethink both her defensive belief that she is uniquely special among all girls for her nerdiness and for her refusal to perform femininity, and her deeply ingrained sense that she must do everything in her power to minimize her presence wherever she goes because she is a woman. “Your beauty is not a tax you are required to pay to take up space in this world,” Felicity reminds herself, like a mantra, and by the end of the book she is coming close to believing it.

Lee shines most when she lets her characters sparkle and banter charmingly at each other, and when she delves into ideas about gender and race and sexuality. One of her most affecting subplots comes from Sim’s sweet flirtation with Felicity, which forces the asexual Felicity to think about whether she is also aromantic, or whether she wants to make room in her life for an unconventional kind of romance.

But while Lee strings her plot together competently enough — all the red herrings misdirect where they should, and all of the final reveals are foreshadowed appropriately — it’s never as compelling as all of the other things her characters are getting up to. Travel from one city to the next passes by in an unfocused blur; the various magical maguffins that Felicity and her friends must eventually acquire feel less like compelling goals in their own right and more like excuses for everyone to keep traveling together and be bantery and political at one another just a little while longer.

Two days after finishing this book, I barely remember the details of Felicity’s climactic confrontation with the villain, what either character wanted from the other, or how it all resolved. But I do remember very clearly Felicity’s profound, aching hunger to learn and know and understand, and I remember her confused, fraught, authentic love for both Johanna and Sim. I have a feeling I’ll remember both those things for a long time to come.