Desert Isle Keeper
The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
“I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off”
– Opening line, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.
Mackenzi Lee introduced her readers to the wily and amusing Montague siblings in her bestselling The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. In that book, Felicity, her brother Henry – Monty – and his best friend Percy (whom he secretly loved) embarked on a madcap Grand Tour of Europe which quickly went awry when the trio fell foul of highwaymen, pirates and umpteen other misadventures. Now that Monty’s life is somewhat settled it’s his sister Felicity’s turn to rebel – and rebel she does.
Felicity settled in Edinburgh after the end of the previous book, and hopes to follow her dream of training to become a doctor at a hospital. But with no money to support her, those fantasies have been frustrated. Though she’s being courted by Callum, a kind baker, he is unsupportive of her ambitions and the relationship leaves her cold. When Callum proposes, Felicity is confronted by the fact that she’s been using him for his baked goods and his kindness, and their futures are incompatible; his settled, gentle, content domesticity doesn’t please her at all, and she knows she’ll never be happy until she’s a doctor. Felicity leaves for London, where Monty is living with Percy, and where she plans on petitioning the head of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for a position when they take new students in the spring.
Unfortunately, the squalling, crowded environs of London are less than hospitable to Felicity. Though Monty and Percy make room for her in their small apartment, the board at St. Bartholomew’s is less than open-minded to her cause (they even suggest her voracious reading will shrink her brain) and her interview is an exercise in humiliation. But one doctor on the board does take notice and he informs Felicity that the radical (and recently unlicensed) Dr. Alexander Platt, Felicity’s long-term medical idol, is looking for research assistants to accompany him on an expedition to the Barbary Coast. Thanks to her previous experience during her semi-disastrous tour with Percy, Felicity has the skills needed to go, but all of her excitement dies when she learns that Platt’s fiancée is Johanna Hoffman, an extremely close childhood friend with whom she parted on less than friendly terms and who may easily influence Platt against her. Felicity is nonetheless determined to plead her case – but Platt is in Germany preparing for his wedding, so Felicity contacts her pirate friend Scipio (whom she and Monty met in AGGTVAV) to ask for passage. That’s where Sim, one of Scipio’s crewmembers, involves herself and offers to sail Felicity there.
Sim has motivations of her own; she needs to go to the Hoffman’s stately mansion to reclaim something that belonged to her family for generations. While Felicity’s long-suppressed feelings for Johanna begin to resurface (as do Johanna’s dreams of being an independent scientist), her hero worship of Alexander falls into question. When Sim is caught stealing Johanna’s property and the overwhelming pressure of the upcoming wedding finally wear on Johanna, Sim runs off and Johanna bolts, with Felicity pursuing them both on the promise of a job with Alexander. Soon all three women are following a mystery left behind by Johanna’s late mother. Will Felicity achieve her dream of becoming a doctor? Will she find adventure? Or end up walking the plank?
This is one of the best books I’ve read all year. A Ladies’ Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is, quite simply, excellent; a rip-roaring adventure on a grand scale, it’s also a great study with proper pathos into human emotions and takes us into the hearts of its characters. More importantly, its pages transport the reader in a way that’s wonderful and crucially – it’s FUN. Mackenzi Lee is so good at making sure that her characters are well-rounded and flawed so that even minor characters like Callum and Cheslden feel like real people.
Felicity is a wonder; intense, driven, unromantic, intelligent and warm, fearless and funny. She gets to save the day with her medical knowledge multiple times, which is a lot of fun to see. Johanna is marvelous, as is Sim, and both are more than worthy foils for Our Heroine; both pull Felicity out of her head and ground her in a caring world. Between the three main characters, Lee makes an excellent point about there being no one way to express one’s femininity, and how trying to limit themselves to just one way is what originally blew Johanna and Felicity’s relationship apart.
For fans of Monty and Percy, they appear here in supporting roles in the first hundred pages of the book, and then appear again near the end. For what we see of them, it’s notable that Monty and Felicity’s sibling relationship remains adorable and spirited, and Percy and Felicity’s friendship a delight. The author doesn’t skimp on the difficulties of Monty having rejected his inheritance in the previous book; they’re poorer than church mice, and Percy is still dealing with his guardian’s beliefs about his epilepsy affecting his general day to day health. There is a wonderful moment where Felicity, Monty and Percy all share a bed and banter, that will remind delighted readers of the first book.
The book has a very few flaws. Occasionally, terminology used by the characters feels a bit anachronistic; not their ideals, values or notions, but sometimes specific phrases will pop up and you’ll tilt your head and wonder what era you’re in. The book’s biggest problem is that it drops us mid-adventure into the lives of Felicity and Monty. It’s undoubtedly true that many readers will have likely read the previous book and thus won’t need a refresher course as to why Felicity is doing what she’s doing, but new readers may be confused. Even so, the book eventually works very well as a standalone adventure. The writing is so good that if you haven’t already read it, you’ll want to grab up Monty’s story right after finishing this one.
‘Good’ more than describes A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, which is one of the finest YA novels of the year, and a salutatory accomplishment for Lee as well as a journey the reader will find themselves taking more than once.