(if you don’t get the joke, click here)
Two books came to mind while I was reading The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue: Meddling Kids and the Gemma Doyle trilogy (okay, that’s technically three books, but whatever). Meddling Kids I’ve talked at length about, mostly about how fantastically trope-y yet earnest it was as a pastiche/affectionate parody; there’s a similar vibe to that in TGGVV, which takes a decidedly Hitchhiker’s Guide/Monty Python attitude to genre conventions. Gemma Doyle I haven’t talked about, mostly because I read it way before I started this blog, but in essence it’s a YA series about secret magical societies and all-girls boarding schools in fin-de-siècle England. The Gemma Doyle connection is partially stylistic, but it’s also more thematic: both are YA period fiction, both have magic, both discuss how the past was real cool aesthetically but also awful for people who weren’t straight white cismen.
Mostly, though? The vibe I got was fanfiction.
I mean this, of course, in the best way possible. There’s bad fic out there obviously, but there’s also some fantastic stuff out there, authors who represent gender and sexuality with nuance that’s light years above what you see in most published books. It’s that latter genre that I’m thinking of when I talk about TGGVV, the stuff that schools the majority of mainstream media in how to treat women and minorities. In its blatant queerness, its willingness to deal with issues of privilege and The (cishet, white) Patriarchy, its focus on interpersonal relationships over Big Important Ideas or intricate plot shenanigans (character-driven as opposed to plot-driven yes!), TGGVV is the all the qualities I love best in fanfiction.
That, and the mutual pining. Oh gosh, the mutual pining.
Anyways. You’re going to want a plot summary at some point, aren’t you? So it’s the 1700s (or thereabouts—the Bourbons are there and slavery is still legal), and Henry “Monty” Montague is a walking bisexual mess who is going to tour Europe (yay!) before he has to formally become an Adult (boo!). Along for the ride are Monty’s mixed-race best friend Percy Newton (yay!), his annoying younger sister Felicity (boo!), and his truly enormous crush on Percy (eek). Also period decor and daddy issues and The Patriarchy truly fucking over anyone who isn’t a straight white male (read: all these literal children). Add in a witty narrative voice and gleefully stylized approach to historical accuracy and I am completely, 100% in.
That’s a surface gloss to plot and, if we’re being honest, a fairly inadequate one.
This is partially because spoilers—there’s alchemy involved and proper adventuring stuff with pirates and highwaymen, but talking about that really ruins some of the book’s major twists—but it’s also because this isn’t really one of the books you read for the mystery of thing, the “can they return the ring to Mordor” or “who will rule the Iron Throne” type questions. The alchemy and the pirates matter yes, but they matter because they drive the big queer love story that’s the beating alchemical heart of this novel. Again: character, not plot-driven.
And oh what lovely characters they are. I’ll admit I’m as fond of Felicity as the internet seems to be—something about lack of visible vulnerability and being her antithesis in terms of personality, Myers-Brigg and otherwise—but she is undeniably badass and her level-headedness saved the collective ass of this trio multiple times. Maybe it’s the fault of the narration being so Monty-centric, putting the focus on the boys; maybe it’s the problem of being an older sister myself, and understanding that exasperation towards younger siblings; maybe it’s some subconscious unexamined internalized misogyny that makes me gravitate towards the male characters in the text; maybe I’m just an emotional Hufflepuff who can respect and befriend logical Slytherins but never quite fully get them. Maybe it’s all of the above; maybe nobody cares and you just want me to get on with the damn review already. Either way, Felicity* was enjoyable, but she didn’t quite do it for me.
But the boys! As the main members of the big queer love story (™), I loved them. Percy is sweet and considerate and generally a soft baby bird who can’t quite handle how long his limbs have become; it’s easy to see why Monty fell in love with this tall sweetheart of a child. Monty, well—Monty’s impulsive and stubborn and occasionally unaware of his white male privilege, but he’s also much more vulnerable than his performative narcissism would have you believe. I know the other characters have it hard, too, structural inequality being a bitch and all, but it’s Monty my heart broke for. Percy too, yes because he’s so NICE but everything sucks SO MUCH for him, but in the end, it was grade-A human disaster Monty who caused me the most visceral, heart-stabbing, “my poor child”-declaring emotional damage. It doesn’t help the the narrative was inordinately fond of having him stabbed, poisoned, kidnapped, and otherwise hurt (I see you there hurt/comfort trope, and once again I am no match for your dark magic). Monty says and does some egregious stuff, yes, but he also learns from it and gets better. And really, given how we’re all born into the toxic culture of The Patriarchy, isn’t that the best we can try for?
Monty also really needs a hug. So does Percy. As do (spoilers?) Helena and her father and heck, probably Felicity too, though here’s hoping the sequel does better to flesh her out as a human being with sympathetic flaws and insecurities. I love these children. I love this book. I mean, how could I not? It’s a beautiful fluffy meringue of a novel, full of literally every trope that’s a calling for “Cynthia Zhang, professional loser.”** My only regret really is that the timeline of the book necessarily means that it’s a pre-Wilde, pre-Byron time because oh man, I love those melodramatic assholes (maybe this explains my fondness for Monty?) Can you imagine the perfect triangle of melodrama we could have had? Where is the crossover fic, with all the Regency decor and/or fin-de-siècle nonsense I need in my life? Is it time for me to write it? With fifteen other writing projects and grad school applications and all this spare time I magically have on my hands?
Anyways. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was a beautiful, romantic, all-around fantastically fun book. Read it, please. And then write the fanfiction, so I don’t have to.
*Also, given the Gemma Doyle connection mentioned above, the name “Felicity” was mildly distracting, as I keep on expecting my badass-but-occasionally-ruthless-scary lesbian huntress magician to show up. This is possibly a sign I should reread these books, or at least get into some of the fanfiction, because wow, as female-centric vaguely magical historical novel? These books were totally my sixteen-year-old self’s jam.
**The professional part is actually accurate—I was (not-so) sneakily reading this book at work, and I was pretty much an emotional mess for multiple days. I am a wonderful employee who never wastes time at work, no sirree.