I was so pleased when I got an advance review copy of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee. I had to charge up my ereader specifically for this title.
Felicity Montague is through with pretending she prefers society parties to books about bone setting—or that she’s not smarter than most people she knows, or that she cares about anything more than her dream of becoming a doctor.
A year after an accidentally whirlwind tour of Europe, which she spent evading highwaymen and pirates with her brother Monty, Felicity has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of Callum Doyle, a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh; and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.
But then a small window of hope opens. Doctor Alexander Platt, an eccentric physician that Felicity idolizes, is looking for research assistants, and Felicity is sure that someone as forward thinking as her hero would be willing to take her on. However, Platt is in Germany, preparing to wed Felicity’s estranged childhood friend Johanna. Not only is Felicity reluctant to opening old wounds, she also has no money to make the trip.
Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid. In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that will lead her from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.
This reaction and review contains spoilers! Proceed with caution 😛
I absolutely loved Mackenzi’s first book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Monty was an absolute MESS and the storytelling was quick and sassy. Felicity, the narrator of Lady’s Guide, and Monty’s sister who also starred in the first book, is a great foil to her brother. She has direction, ambition, and is asexual where her brother is hypersexual.
Mackenzi handles Felicity’s asexuality with keen attention. The way Felicity is absolutely sure and grounded in herself makes this ace character a wonderful individual. While most young adult would lean into addressing a lack of sexual interest an issue that needs to be overcome and puts them at a deficit in a our sexualized society, Felicity is confident and doesn’t view it as something that needs to be overcome, despite presented the opportunities to make her asexuality an invisible aspect of her identity.
Let’s talk Johanna for a moment. One of the main themes of this books is the empowerment of women, especially in historical contexts and oppressive societies. Johanna’s faces down issues in a way very different from Felicity. She is feminine, adores her frills and bows, and will not compromise that aspect of her self even in the face of Felicity’s scorn for societal prescriptions and necessitations of femininity. Just as Felicity is calmly assured of her asexuality (despite not knowing the term for it), Johanna is just as assured in her feminine presentation being a weapon, not an unconsciously-accepted subjugation. She wields fragile femininity, marriage, and flattery as weapons to secure power within the societal constructs that confine her. The message is a little heavy-handed at times, but that is necessary in the face of Felicity’s narrative oppression on those topics.
Sim. Oh Sim. Sim is, at once, the character with the most agency, and the character with the least agency. She has power in her upbringing and identity, moves freely across the seas, and can access resources in any city. Yet while her family associations grant her power, the familial structures that exist remove that power. She is fierce in her mission and yet does not push boundaries of her family. It’s a little tragic, to be honest, to see this heavy yoke on her character.
One of the things I was thrown off by was the more fantastic aspects of the story. LAST WARNING TO AVOID SPOILERS. The inclusion of dragons threw me off. The thing I absolutely loved about Gentleman’s Guide was the plausible absurdity of Monty’s adventures. The inclusion of a fantastical aspect, while delightful for a fantasy narrative, pulled away from the plausible absurdity aspect that governed Monty’s books and I had presumed would govern the series. If I look at the story as separate from Monty’s story, I can still appreciate all of it and I still deeply enjoyed it. But as a unit, the dragon existence created a dissonance between the two titles of this duology.
Some of my favourite portions of this story, however, were the antics and banter between Monty and Percy, mostly sidelined in the this story. I was so pleased to see that their relationship was not challenged in a narrative ploy to add secondary tensions to the main story. Are Monty and Percy my OTP? Probably. But we so rarely get two queer characters falling in love and staying in love. Thank you, Mackenzi, for honouring their relationship in your narrative (and, I imagine, fighting for them to remain together).