By Kai Ruwende | June 5, 2020
If you’re interested in the genres of historical fiction, drama, or action, Mackenzie Lee’s critically acclaimed soon to be trilogy of 19th century adolescent mischief and adventure might be a series worth your time( though it is important to note that the series deals with some intense subject matter and mature themes). With the third installment, The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks, expected to be released in mid-August, you’d have plenty of time to knock out the first two novels and maybe even the novella that takes place in between them. And even if historical fiction isn’t quite your taste, I’d still recommend the series to anyone who likes a good story and well-written characters. I myself was slightly reluctant to give the series a try; two novels is a commitment, especially if you’ve got a long list of books on your waitlist. That said, the prose keeps you engaged even during the calmer moments, and Lee manages to make every turn seem so urgent that it’s nearly impossible to willingly put the book down. On top of that, the endings of both the first and second book leave you with that warm feeling of satisfaction while also instilling a longing for more from the Montague siblings and their contemporaries.
The first novel of the series, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, follows the story of Henry(Monty) Montague, a troubled and troublesome young lord in mid-19th century England. After being expelled from his elite boarding school and consistently disappointing his father due to his promiscuity, his taste for illicit substances, and his sexual orientation, Monty is sent on a tour of Europe with his younger sister Felicity and his best friend Percy. Although Monty is determined to use the trip as an opportunity to engage in his usual, ungentlemanly shenanigans, the revelation that the end of their tour will bring rather unfortunate circumstances upon all three teens makes the situation much less of a vacation and more akin to purgatory. This looming sense of misery makes for a tense first leg of their trip when their plans are suddenly interrupted after one of Monty’s ill informed actions. Soon, they end up in a messy hunt for an alchemical cure-all as they battle it out with corrupt French diplomats, befriend a band of pirates, and more. The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy shifts perspectives to Monty’s sister about a year after the group’s initial adventure. To describe it without any spoilers for the first book, Felicity ends the prior novel with the decision to pursue her passion for medicine and become a physician. The action unfolds as she struggles to find medical mentorship in England due to her gender, but stumbles upon a sneaky way to possibly work with her medical hero, Dr. Alexander Platt, while he is in Germany. The series’ typical excitement ensues as Felicity finds herself traveling between continents in pursuit of her dream alongside a cast of new and familiar characters alike. The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks will once again change perspective, this time to the youngest of the Montague siblings. The story takes place a number of years after the last book’s end, and the protagonist is Adrian, the newly appointed heir to the Montague family fortune. After struggling with hysteria, the death of his mother, and his father’s high expectations, Adrian seeks out his now adult siblings as he travels across the Caribbean in search of a reprieve from his unfulfilling life and in pursuit of answers to old family secrets.
While the series maintains a plot that is fast-paced and full of interesting historical references, what I appreciate most is the fact that despite the details of their stories being specific to their period, each character still feels timely. Monty’s struggles with his identity and substance use, Felicity’s longing for the same opportunities as her male peers, and Percy’s experience of racism and cultural displacement all feel relevant to today’s world. Contrary to the common fate of other books that take place in a time so different from our own, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy manage to present the reader with characters that are relatable. We can see ourselves and the people we know in Monty, Felicity, and Percy, and that makes emotionally investing in their lives easy. If the first two books are any indication, the third installment will hopefully be just as thrilling, heartwarming, and accessible to today’s readers.