by Mackenzi Lee
Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
This is one of those books that somehow passed me by until about a month before it was due to be published, and once I was aware of it I saw it everywhere. I saw so many rave reviews from readers who'd managed to get hold of a review copy that I knew I had to have it and, once I had it, I had so much fun reading it.
This easily could have been a frustrating, infuriating book. It takes a very good author to write a character who grows significantly as a person throughout a story, and boy does Lee do that well with Monty. Monty is privileged in many ways; he's white, male and wealthy and has been able to get away with his reckless behaviour because he's white, male and wealthy. He's been privileged since birth and, as such, he doesn't comprehend how life isn't as easy for his sister, Felicity, and his mixed race best friend, Percy.
Could it be frustrating to be reading a story from the point of view of someone who's had so much handed to him on a plate and taken it for granted? Yes, but Lee writes Monty so well that he is a sympathetic character. What's important about Monty's story is that he does grow as a person, at a natural pace, and we can see how he changes and why he changes which, as a reader, is very rewarding. When all Monty has known is the privilege he was born with we can't punish him for that privilege, instead he has to learn for himself to be aware of that privilege, and it was so refreshing to follow a protagonist in historical fiction who isn't 'ahead of their time'. So often in historical fiction protagonists feel like 21st century people in costume because authors don't want their characters to be so unrelatable that they're unlikeable, but Lee isn't afraid to make Monty a product of his time and his upbringing and still, ultimately, a good person, and I love this book because of it.
I was also a huge fan of the romance. It can be difficult to write a relationship that goes from friendship to romance well, but the chemistry between Monty and Percy is delicious and believable and I couldn't stop grinning whenever the two of them were together. Percy might well be my favourite character in the novel, I adored him.
Lee gets bonus points from me, too, for not shying away from the racism and homophobia that was rampant in the 18th century; Monty himself is completely aware that, were his sexuality known by the wrong people, he could be executed for sodomy, but that doesn't stop him from pursuing relationships with other men because that's part of who he is. Poor Percy, on the other hand, faces discrimination from all angles being both mixed race and non-heterosexual, but Lee still writes him as a fleshed-out young man who just so happens to be these things and not a metaphoric victim.
The only small issue I had with this novel was the fantastical element which, to me, seemed to pop up out of nowhere and jarred me a little. It wasn't bad by any means, and it certainly didn't spoil what is a brilliant book, but I wasn't expecting it and I'm not sure it needed to be there. It's difficult to discuss without spoilers but the idea of a magical (for lack of a better word) panacea certainly gave the plot some direction, I just wasn't expecting this supernatural cure-all to be real within the story. If you've read it then hopefully you'll know what I mean, because I'm fairly sure I'm not making any sense. The review skills are strong with this one.
All in all this was a fun, entertaining and fast-paced read that also packed an emotional punch, fantastic character development and a whole lot of historical context. I really enjoyed the experience of reading it and I'm eagerly anticipating The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy!