Review: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
Mackenzi Lee's new book is a delightfully humorous and entertaining historical romp
October 17, 2018
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Even as a huge history nerd I have to admit that historical novels aren’t always an easy sell. So much of historical fiction for young adults is dull, poorly-researched or used by writers as an excuse to write exclusively about straight white men. But Mackenzi Lee’s new book, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, is a delightfully humorous and entertaining historical romp that breathes fresh life into the genre of historical fiction while subtly deconstructing stereotypes about gender, race, and sexuality.
The Lady’s Guide follows Felicity Montague, a brilliant 16 year-old-girl whose highest aspiration is to become a doctor. Unfortunately, Felicity is a woman in 18th century England, and the doors of scientific study are barred to her. In a last ditch effort, Felicity journeys to Germany, where her idol, Dr. Alexander Platt, is soon to marry an old friend, in the hopes of convincing Platt to take her on as an assistant. There’s just one catch: the only way Felicity can afford the trip is if she lets a mysterious young woman travel with her disguised as a maid. Felicity soon realizes that there is more to her companion than meets the eye, and finds herself embroiled in a quest spanning continents and oceans.
The Lady’s Guide is a companion to Lee’s previous novel, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but it is not necessary to have read The Gentleman‘s Guide to understand or enjoy it. (I would highly recommend The Gentleman’s Guide nonetheless, it is the epitome of fun, swoony historical romance and adventure.)
Mackenzi Lee writes historical fiction that is well-researched and convincing without ever feeling dense. The Lady’s Guide is rooted enough in history never feels like an anachronism, but its themes are still immediate and relevant to the modern day. The sexism Felicity experiences is not all that different from the sexism experienced by ambitious, independent young women today. Lee skewers the idea that there is a right or a wrong way to be a girl by presenting an array of heroines who are all powerful and strong in different ways.
One of the biggest joys for me reading The Lady’s Guide was getting to see the budding friendship between Felicity and her girl gang of lady adventuresses. The relationship between these girls is equal parts messy, heartwarming, and humorous in a way that all-too-few portrayals of female friendship are allowed to be, and provides the real emotional core of this novel. Felicity is somewhere on the aro-ace spectrum, and The Lady’s Guide does an excellent job of challenging the idea that romantic love is inherently superior to platonic love and friendship.
But The Lady’s Guide‘s focus on character-development doesn’t come at the expense of clever storytelling. The book races along at an addictive pace, taking readers on an engaging adventure with plenty of tense moments. There are also plenty of moments of genuine snark, I can’t count the amount of time that I laughed aloud reading this book.
Fans of The Gentleman’s Guide will definitely want to pick up The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, but I firmly believe that this book is for more than just devotees of Lee’s previous work. Even if it isn’t the sort of thing that you usually read, I highly recommend that you give it a try. The Lady’s Guide is for anyone who enjoys being transported by an entertaining adventure revolving around a cast of flawed-yet-lovable characters.
Alanna Felton is a senior and the Editor-in-Chief of the journalism staff. She is also president and founder of the RHS Young Writers’ Club and an officer...