I pulled Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue off the shelf just before leaving on a trip to Paris, partly because I knew Paris featured in at least some of the action and also because I had just finished The Song of Achilles and felt like reading another YA boy-boy romance. But mostly it just seemed like a perfect vacation book, easy and breezy, and at least for that, it did not disappoint.
Henry “Monty” Montague is the ne’er-do-well son of an English lord, and he’s being sent on a year-long European tour with best friend Percy and younger sister Felicity. Monty is excited about having Percy along, hoping to have a lot of one-on-one time, since Percy is also his unrequited crush. He’s less excited about Felicity, since the two don’t get along, and then right before they’re to leave, his father reveals the true nature of the tour. He’s sending a tutor and chaperone to prepare Monty for his new duties in helping oversee their estate, and he makes explicit his threat to disinherit Monty if he gets into the slightest whiff of trouble on the trip.
Of course, Monty is young and spoiled and selfish, and he immediately finds trouble when he’s caught fooling around with a young woman in a private room in Versailles during a party. To retaliate against the man who catches him — the Duke of Bourbon, the king’s right-hand man — he steals what he thinks is an innocuous trinket. On the road to Marseilles, their party is attacked by highwaymen, but Monty, Percy, and Felicity escape into the woods. They find their way to Marseilles where they discover they weren’t attacked by highwaymen but by the Duke of Bourbon and his men, who are after the trinket Monty stole which turns out to be the key to a mystery involving a Catalan alchemist and the possible secret to eternal life.
And that’s where the story really went off the rails for me. This book reminded me of designs on Project Runway or dishes on Top Chef where the judges tell the contestant they tried to cram too many ideas into one creation. The whole Duke-of-Bourbon plotline felt completely unnecessary, and the fantasy elements stood out in a bad way, shoehorned into an otherwise un-fantastical book. It would have been enough to follow the three main characters in a jaunt around Europe pursuing their silly hijinks while also addressing bigger issues of sexuality, gender, race, and superstition. Or really commit to the crazy adventure/fantasy angle and just go for it. But with everything thrown in together, it was just a big mess, and that’s a shame, because there’s some good stuff in there.