The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

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Publication date – October 2, 2018

Summary: A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of 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 window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own 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 leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Thoughts: After thoroughly enjoying Mackenzi Lee’s previous novel pertaining to the Montague siblings, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I expected to like this book just as much. In the end, though, I can’t say that I did. Oh, I definitely enjoyed my time with it, and it certainly has its strengths and is worth taking the time to read if you’re a fan of YA historical fiction, but it didn’t captivate me in the same way as its predecessor, and after that strong introduction to the author’s writing, this one felt like a bit of a let-down in comparison.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy allows Felicity (Monty’s sister and semi-unwilling traveling companion from the previous book) to take centre stage as she tries to gain admittance into the grand masculine halls of higher education. Unsurprisingly given the time period of these books, she is unsuccessful, with her gender being held against her as making her “unfit” to study medicine. Because girly parts and wandering uteruses and blah blah fragile masculinity blah. Felicity is not so much upset as she is angry about this. So when there’s the slim hope of a chance to study under a man she admires, Dr. Platt, she launches herself head-first forward. Even if it means reuniting with an old friend she fell out with years ago. Even if it involves getting mixed up with pirates and murky schemes.

Even if her idol isn’t quite the man she thought he was.

For all that The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy maintains a similar sense of adventure as its predecessor, that adventure didn’t grab me in quite the same way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t invested in Felicity’s journey or her discoveries about the world and herself, but Monty’s starring role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meant that a delightfully irreverent sense of humour was there throughout the pages, and his general absence here meant a lack of the same. Felicity’s narration is very different from Monty’s, filled more with anger and stubbornness than wit and baffled privilege. Felicity viewpoint is absolutely important, and still relevant today (much to my chagrin), but as far as entertainment value, I do have to say that Monty’s narration really gave the previous novel an edge over this one.

Felicity’s position is undeniably a hard one to be in. She’s intelligent, driven, passionate, and she wants more for her life than just to settle down and be the wife to a man who would expect her to put away childish things like the desire to learn and be respected in the same way and for doing the same things that a man would. Felicity doesn’t want to be a man, but she wants what men have, and who can blame her? Society dictates that she, her very essence, is unseemly, that she should have abandoned her desires as a childish conceit, or at least done what her friend Johanna did and become more acceptably feminine even if her academic interests remained the same. Through the story Felicity wrestles time and again with whether pursuing her goals is even worth it, whether she can say that it brings her happiness or peace to do so even with the knowledge that she will very likely fail, or whether she should shunt all of that to the side and aim for more social acceptance and put on the mask of civility so that she stops rubbing everyone around her raw.

Honestly, it’s a debate I’ve had with myself multiple times, so I can very much understand and appreciate Felicity’s dilemma. Is it better to hide the deepest part of oneself and to conform in the name of making life more harmonious, or is it better to be true to oneself even if the cost is social cohesion and connection? Which brings greater satisfaction? Which is more important? Though it may seem to the reader that Felicity comes off as flip-floppy or indecisive regarding something we already know she feels strongly about, that indecision is, in fact, a very realistic aspect to the lives of many who don’t fit in, who are too passionate or odd to adapt to society’s mold. Frankly, I’m in my 30s and I still wrestle with this from time to time. It’s a debate that doesn’t just end after one decision. There is always something around the corner that makes you doubt whether self-denial might be worth it after all.

Once again comparing this novel to the one that came before it, the supernatural element seemed stronger and more overt this time around. In Monty’s story, the mere rumour of a magical or alchemical panacea drove a lot of the plot forward. Here, while for a while the story is about Felicity reaching Dr. Platt and then uncovering his true motives, there’s also the issue of Sim, whose presence comes and goes but is ultimately tied to her family’s legacy of keeping the secret of the sea serpents whose scales act like a drug when ingested. Once Sim reveals that information, Felicity can look back on her interactions with Platt and see that he already knew about the serpents and their scales, and that the otherwordly (so to speak) element was present the whole time within the story.

Honestly, this didn’t really do anything for me. Felicity and Johanna’s encounter with the sea serpents and their theories on how they live were interesting and reminiscent of Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, but the execution of that plot element didn’t feel as deft as the similar element in the previous book. As I said, I was intrigued by how much Monty was driven by the rumour of the alchemical panacea, to the point where it frankly didn’t really matter whether there was truth behind the rumour or not. The possibility sparked both adventure and misadventure, and it was a great example of what a person can do with mere whispers in their ears. Here, though, it was like Felicity’s goal changed repeatedly, that she had nothing until she had everything, and there wasn’t a great mystery to solve, no wondering as to the truth of what she hears. There are sea serpents, Platt is after them, the scales do exactly what Felicity had been told they do.

If it had been more akin to what The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had presented, Sim’s family would have believed the dragons to be real but wouldn’t have show undeniable proof, Felicity and Johanna would never have found the dead beached serpent nor its orphaned offspring, a serpent wouldn’t have risen from the depths to crush their enemies, and the whole journey would have been Felicity trying to reach her mentor, then going off on an adventure with her childhood friend to discover whether or not the rumours of such miraculous creatures had any truth to them, and they would have found nothing concrete but seen something under the ocean’s waves that we’d all know to be the sea serpent, but that’s as close as anyone would come to concrete evidence. The journey sparked by personal ambition, changing to include the desires of or for a childhood friend, rumours pushing them on, and in the end both nothing and everything changed.

Since I’m sure it’s on the minds of anyone reading this review, yes, there is once again queer representation in this book, though it’s not exactly as positive as before. Felicity isn’t precisely disgusted by the relationship between her brother and Percy, but she acts often as though she doesn’t want to see it and doesn’t want to be around them when they’re acting like a couple. She accepts that they’re in love and that they make each other happy, but she herself is happiest when they’re not around her being happy with each other. Frankly, that was rather unpleasant to read.

Sim is undeniably attracted to women (less sure about whether she’s attracted to men also; that wasn’t really touched on), and I honestly would read an entire novel about her because she’s a great character with lots of potential, although as I mentioned previously, she dips in and out of the story when the plot needs her to, so she’s not present as much as she could be and as such didn’t get as much development as some of the others. And I know it’s likely to be a case of Unfortunate Implications rather than anything deliberate, but when Sim is a Muslim woman who vanishes from the story at intervals because it’s not convenient to have her around and doesn’t get the development of characters like Johanna, it can come across a bit as saying that the openly-Muslim characters aren’t as important as the white Europeans. Or that they’re only good to have around when they’re needed to advance someone else’s story. Again, probably not the author’s intention, but it can read that way at times, and it’s something that’s worth paying attention to.

As for how Felicity relates to queer representation… It’s not said explicitly, since the terms weren’t really in common use with modern connotations during the time this book is set, but Felicity is probably either asexual, aromantic, or both. I’m not even entirely sure, if Felicity were given those terms and modern knowledge, whether she would know. Neither man nor woman has been able to light a fire in her, so to speak, but that doesn’t narrow it down, and it might just mean she doesn’t like kissing. It’s not a universal like, after all. And while it was good to see a potentially aro/ace character in a YA novel, I do have some issues with the presentation.

First, it’s not concrete. As I said, her experience has mostly been that she hasn’t been interested in anyone so far and isn’t that into kissing. Compared to her brother’s clear and self-expressed attraction to men and women, it’s easy for readers who don’t want to see more aro/ace characters to just not read that in Felicity, and to downplay it as her just not having found “the right person” yet.

And believe me, I wish I could properly convey the sour feeling associated with those words, because I’ve heard them from many people in regard to myself, and there’s a lot of bitterness surrounding the idea that asexual people just need somebody to awaken latent sexual desire within them. Like we’re all “late bloomers,” sexually immature, and that we need sexytimes to prove to ourselves that we want sexytimes, and yes, “you’ll want it after you’ve had it,” is a common idea and is just as damaging and creepy as you might think it is.

Secondly, a lot of presentations of asexuality in media come across as more a matter of a character not knowing what they want and less as knowing what they don’t want. Asexual people do go through a journey of discovery when it comes to their sexuality, absolutely, and we don’t always instantly know, “Ah yes, I absolutely have no sexual or romantic desire for people,” but very often the formula seems to break down as:

Am I interested in the opposite gender? No.
Am I interested in the same gender? No.
Well golly, there must be something wrong and weird about me. Why can’t I decide which I like?

The idea that sexual or romantic attraction is innate rather than just being common is one that prevents asexual and aromantic people from accepting themselves. And society backs up this idea, because there’s so much even now that tells us we have to define ourselves by what we are, by what we like, that nobody every considers that not liking a thing is a thing in itself. If someone didn’t like living in apartments, we wouldn’t automatically assume that they do like living in houses, but we go that route with sexuality all the time. If someone has no attraction to either gender, they often struggle defining themselves because this culture and this language doesn’t really have much call for expressing who we are by what we don’t have an interest in. That seems negative,and so must be discouraged. We can’t say that we dislike living in apartments; we must say we like living in houses, even if that isn’t really the truth of the matter. Even if the dislike of apartments defines us more than liking to live in houses, our identity must stem from what we like, what we are, what we do, or else we’re curmudgeons and negative and nobody wants to be around a Negative Nelly.

Where am I going with this? Essentially, to the point that Felicity’s sexual orientation in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is hinted at only by telling us what she doesn’t like. We’re meant to follow that to the conclusion of asexuality or aromanticism, but its never said. Felicity never says, or thinks, “I have no romantic or sexual desire for anybody.” She just expresses that kissing men didn’t appeal to her, and kissing Sim was better but still not that appealing, and so the reader is meant to reach the conclusion through a series of if/then coding. If not this, then that. If not that, then the other thing. Saying it without saying it, because even if a clever author could easily find ways to express that a lack of desire is still something, there was no such cleverness here, and it was disappointing.

Third and final, Felicity’s potential asexuality and/or aromanticism is tied to her personality of not having much time for anyone and anything that doesn’t suit her and her goals. She’s impatient, driven, passionate, and at times extremely single-minded, and it’s too easy to read that her lack of desire for sexual or romantic connection is just another facet of that “no time for anything else” personality, rather than something that can and does play a part in the lives of many kinds of people with a variety of different personality types. It’s a trope at this point. The asexual characters is nearly always the one that’s asexual due to trauma or religion, or they’re the obsessive goes-against-the-grain type that often can’t see outside their own narrow scope.

And once again, it was disappointing.

Similar to the issue with Sim, I feel that this was less the author’s deliberate intention and more a case of unfortunate implications. But these implications are once again things that can damage and delay acceptance. I can all too easily imagine a teen reading this book and thinking, “Felicity’s just like me that way, I’m not interested in sex/romance either, but oh wait, Felicity’s not interested in anything outside of her focus and drive to get into medicine, so maybe she’s got so time for romance just like she had no time for Johanna’s pretty dresses.” Instead of someone seeing themselves in a book for possibly the first time, they see someone who might be like them, maybe, but it’s so easy to explain away, and it’s never even explicitly stated to begin with.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book. I will say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor, and that I found the previous book to be better on a multitude of levels. I can see The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy appealing to people who enjoy historical fiction, and to those who are interested in historical aspects of feminism. But where The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue shone, this book merely glitters in comparison, and I think it could have stood a couple more sensitivity readers going over the material to smooth over some of the rough edges that might scratch at people who need to be met with better. It’s easily skippable even if you really enjoyed the first book of the series, though in fairness, a third book is still on the horizon and might well build off certain things established here, so I can’t say for absolute certainty that this will remain my opinion in the future.