Title: The Lady’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: October 2nd, 2018
Genre(s): YA Historical, Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Feminism, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)
I’m probably one of the few people who thought Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was just a fun, cute story. Good but not great–one that I felt lacked substance in a few places. I came into Lady’s Guide expecting more of the same.
Well colour me surprised, because I didn’t quite expect this. I didn’t expect to be up at 3 AM eyes glued to my tablet screen, grinning and furiously highlighting passages. Because Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy blows the first book out of the water and then some.
Felicity was undoubtedly my favourite character of Book 1 (sorry, Monty). She stole many scenes with her practical, no-nonsense attitude. But here? Here Lee makes sure that she burns wild and piercing like the star that she is. And this is clearly Mackenzi Lee in her element–exploring feminist values within a historical setting through the eyes of a stubborn, brilliant, beautiful young woman who refuses to take “No” for an answer.
Since the events of Book 1, Felicity has been sequestered in Edinburgh where she’s been working at a bakery and petitioning various medical schools to allow her entry (it hasn’t been very successful). When she hears that the renowned surgeon Alexander Platt, her idol, will soon be marrying her childhood friend, Felicity teams up with a mysterious sailor girl named Sim to travel to Stuttgart and meet the good doctor.
Felicity’s narrative voice is a glorious thing. It’s full of dry wit, intelligence, passion, and a whole lot of vulnerability that we didn’t really get a chance to see in Gentleman’s Guide. Even in scenes where there’s not a whole lot going on, Felicity kept me engaged; I didn’t even care about the lack of piracy in the first half because Felicity oozes enough charisma to make up for a whole fleet of pirates. She swings from being relatably, adorably awkward to fire-in-the-eyes confident and sharp-tongued and I don’t know which I loved more.
And my god, her passion. You know when you’re watching someone talk about something they truly, truly love and you swear you can see them light up from the inside out? Like the force of their love is creating thousands of billions of little nuclear fusion reactions all at once in their body?
That’s what it’s like when Felicity talks about medicine. Her passion burns molten hot and you can’t help but be pulled into it. And as Felicity shines, the prose shines with her. I mean, the writing wasn’t shabby in Book 1, but Lee takes it up a few notches with this one:
“I want to know all of it. I want to look at my own hands and know everything about the way they move beneath the skin, the fine strings that tie them to the rest of me and all the other intricate components that fuse together to make a complete person. The mysteries of how a system as delicate and precise as the human body not only exists, but exists in infinite variables. I want to know how things go wrong. How we break each other and the best way to put ourselves back together…I want to know everything about my own self, and never to have to rely on someone else to tell me the way I work.”
The other thing I absolutely loved is the estranged relationship between Felicity and her old friend, Johanna, which I found both wonderful and heartbreaking–wonderful, because their dynamic is so charming and fun and witty and you imagine them riding off into the sunset together; and heartbreaking because there are so many unaddressed hurts standing between them and neither seem to know quite how to navigate through that. Monty and Percy I found cute and sweet. But these two? These two I would die for. They are a beautiful, complimentary pair, with Johanna softening out Felicity’s blunt edges. Add Sim, our mysterious Muslim pirate girl, and we have a group that will satisfy all you readers who are dying to see more female friendships in books (though I did find myself wanting a bit more exploration into Sim’s character).
The book also addresses the way that women look down on other women–the “not like the other girls” mindset–because regardless of how fantastic she is, Felicity isn’t without faults; her intelligence and practicality doesn’t change the fact that she’s still a teenage girl who’s trying to figure things out. And while she likes to believe she’s an advocate of female independence, she’s still, in some ways, parroting the rules that men set for women. Because “Frilly dresses are ridiculous and you won’t be taken seriously in it” isn’t a enlightened statement nor a feminist one. It’s playing right into the belief that there’s something inherently wrong with femininity and objects associated with femininity. And part of her character development is coming to understand that there are so many ways a girl can be a girl. And that being a girl has nothing to do with rebelling against male expectations or conforming to them, but about carving out a place in the world that you’re happy with–whether that involves frilly dresses or science textbooks or both. Seeing her go through that journey is such a rewarding experience.
Everyone has heard stories of women like us–cautionary tales, morality plays, warnings of what will befall you if you are a girl too wild for the world, a girl who asks too many questions or wants too much. If you set off into the world alone.
Everyone has heard stories of women like us, and we intend to make more of them.
The pacing is much improved from Book 1 which had the plot halting and starting in fits. It’s smoother sailing this time around, with tension and mystery building in the middle and more action in the second half.
The only big complaint I have is the fantasy aspect which, like the first book, kind of drops out of nowhere. I’d have much preferred it if the story were a straightforward historical adventure, or if the fantasy elements were woven more evenly. And the fact that none of the characters bat their eyes at the existence of these fantastical things just makes them feel all the more removed from the rest of the worldbuilding.
So to all you librarians, teachers, and parents: this is a book you should be shoving into the hands of every teenage girl in your life. Or everyone, really. Because this is a book for every one of us who have been told, for one reason or another, that we can’t.
You’re Asian, you don’t have the height, you can’t last in competitive tennis.
You’re fat, you don’t have the right body, you can’t dance on stage.
You’re a woman, you’re too emotional, you can’t lead a country.
Well, Felicity Montague says otherwise.
They tell you your dreams are too big, too lofty? Then lift it higher, she says.
All those sneers and laughter thrown at your back make you want to curl up, scream, cry?
Then scream. Cry. And then get back up. And show them how you’re made of steel.
You are not a fool, you are a fighter, and you deserve to be here. You deserve to take up space in this world.
The ending of Lady’s Guide isn’t the end of a journey, but a beginning. And I hope the journey Lee has planned for these characters is a long, winding one that’ll last for years to come.
Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review