Mackenzi Lee, author of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue,” is slated to appear at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on July 5, 2017. (Mariah Manley / Boston Metropolitan Waterworks Museum)
“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” is a swashbuckling novel brimming with adventure, romance and humor. This new work by Young Adult author Mackenzi Lee, set in the 18th century, introduces readers to Monty, a bisexual young British lord; Percy, his beloved friend, who is gay, multiracial and suffering from epilepsy; and Monty’s sister Felicity, whose dreams of attending medical school meet with gender bias. This is not your father’s historical fiction.
“I hope this is a book that destroys the idea that all historical fiction is boring and serious and populated by white, straight men exclusively,” Lee says. “I love writing the very tropey stories that I grew up on and that are very close to my heart, but then giving those narratives to characters who haven’t traditionally had them.”
Lee researched gay history. “Of course there were queer people in history who were persecuted. Some were actually executed for it. At the same time, there were just as many people who were able to live out, happy, romantic lives. There were more gay bars in London in the 1750s than there were in the 1950s. This history existed and was just ignored by historians and by historical fiction. So I want to bring it to light a little bit more.”
Multiracial main characters are also not staples in traditional period adventures. “It was sort of the same thing — in a lot of situations, people found communities where they could live happy, open and unpersecuted,” Lee says.
The gender bias aspect of the story is one that Lee has researched extensively. She runs a Twitter series, #BygoneBadassBroads. Each week she spotlights a woman from history who, while confronted by sexism, made important contributions — in every imaginable field. The character Felicity was inspired by many of these women.
Originally from Salt Lake City and now based in Boston, Lee says, “I get so frustrated that we, as people, as historians, as historical fiction writers, use this term ‘historical accuracy’ to erase minority experiences from history, whether it’s women or people of color or queer people or the disabled. We say we can’t have them be protagonists of historical stories, because they were so busy being marginalized and oppressed that they weren’t able to have a life beyond that. And that’s complete fiction. I’m sick of people using that excuse. So I’m, hopefully, doing my part to combat that.”
She does so in delightful fashion with “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.” In Lee’s novel, rakish protagonist Henry “Monty” Montague embarks on a Grand Tour of Europe.
Monty will charm readers, as he does his male and female flames. Lee says that, out of all the characters she has ever written, he is the most like her.
“Not in the way of binge-drinking and anonymous sex with strangers,” Lee says, laughing, “but that we are both self-full. He has obvious flaws and is sort of aware of them and trying to get better, but doesn’t always know how to do that. And I feel that way in my own life a lot. He’s so fun to write, to be so saucy and snarky and sort of ridiculous.”
While “The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” makes important strides, in terms of its unusual characters, it’s also wildly entertaining. “It’s the most fun book you’ll ever read about alcoholism, racism, homophobia and chronic illness,” Lee says, laughing.
As a history major, Lee studied abroad for a year and took her own little Grand Tour of Europe. She earned her master’s degree in writing for children and Young Adults.
“As a teenager, you’re so open to loving things with everything inside of you. And it’s so exciting to write for that kind of audience. As an adult, it’s not cool to like things to that extent.”
Lee’s first novel, “This Monstrous Thing,” was well received. “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” appears poised for even greater success. Though set hundreds of years ago, the story and characters are relatable to today’s teens and young adults.
At the outset, Monty is self-absorbed. “Over the course, he starts to realize that your friends have their own emotional lives and struggles and are just as complex as you are,” Lee says. “Many teens experience that sort of realization.”
Lee, 25, who is writing a sequel featuring Felicity, has created historical fiction with a contemporary feeling.
“A lot of teens shy away from historical fiction, because you’re made to read a lot of historical narratives in school and it can feel forced upon you and boring. A lot of it is about war and really heavy topics. But the historical fiction books that stuck with me and made me a lover of history were light and fun. People in the past did have good times.”
There’s a universality to her characters’ appeal. “Our technology, the clothes we wear and the things we talk about may change. But people, at their core, across countries and time periods, are really the same.
“I hope that this book will get readers to look back and find people like them in history. No matter what makes you feel like an outsider, look back and know that people like you have existed for centuries and have survived and prospered. They have been heroes of their own narratives. And I hope teens see that they can be, too.”
Lee recently heard from a gay, physically challenged reader. “They said, until they read my book, they didn’t ever think they would find a spot for someone like them in a narrative form that they loved — adventure novels. Hearing from teenagers who feel like your books have given them a space to exist in or a space to escape to, will honestly never stop being the most rewarding thing to me.”
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who: Mackenzi Lee in conversation with Anna-Marie McLemore
Where: Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday July 5, 2017
Admission: Free; RSVP at www.keplers.org