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.
If there are infinite universes with infinite possibilities, then there exists a version of me that’s a part of a science girl gang on a pirate expedition to save sea monsters, and one day, I will consume enough caffeine to vibrate my molecules at a frequency that allows me to pass between realities and retreat into that universe.
So, what’s this book about?
Felicity Montague would offer up everything on the altar of sacrifice, so long as she gets to fulfill her dream of studying medicine. Her ambition had a stronger pull than all the administrators who talked about her own heart, and how it desired in a way they would judge without turning it over and learning the shape of it, because she was a woman, and they were men – and entitled ones – and these together made them believe the planets and moons orbited around the single point of their desires. But if being siphoned off once a ring is placed on her finger was Felicity’s preordained role on this earth, then she was determined to rewrite it. Felicity intends to make the world shuffle apart to yield more room for her.
Enter Simmaa “Sim” Aldajah, a black Muslim Hijabi pirate, who becomes the linchpin in Felicity’s plan to sail to Germany and argue her case for a position on an expedition Doctor Platt is undertaking – an eccentric physician who happens to be engaged to Felicity’s estranged childhood friend, Johanna.
At least that’s the plan, and things seldom go according to plan. As Sim’s hidden intentions clamor for air and Johanna’s guarded secrets spill out, the three women are thrust into a whirlwind of a quest, as unexpected as it was dangerous, that spans all the way to the Northern coast of Africa and leads them to the unseen secrets of the Atlantic.
This book healed the worn-down places around my heart and I love it so much that I’m considering the possibility of giving up personhood to become a full-time abstract concept of purelove.
Much like the first book, Lady’s Guide‘s careful exploration of class, intersectional privilege, misogyny, colonialism and racism astonishes with its sensitivity and sophistication. The pace is electric, expertly entwining multiple threads until every character is enmeshed in the denouement. The prose is marvelously wrought, strong, and sure-footed, but it’s the characters that meld magic into a riveting, scintillating whole. Most credible and moving are their slow maturations: the author allows her characters so much multidimensionality by giving them room to make mistakes and unlearn past prejudices and assumptions and showing growth and change with brilliant and subtle writing, an impressive attention to detail and witty dialogue.
Felicity, Sim and Johanna give off enough energy to power an entire room. Individually, their sparks might have flared and faded; collectively, they ignited. They had so much shared gravity they pulled toward them anything they wanted. Together, they survived capture and imprisonment and extortion, and they broke free of every feeling of constraint and stultification before it wore them into dust. They didn’t apologize for their hearts, they didn’t make them tame, and small, but left them wild, spare and limitless. They wanted this painted world that thrilled them even as it frightened them. They wanted to understand the language of the women before them – who were denied the means to take up space in the world so they worked new angles for power – even if they would never speak it. And I can already feel the powerful psychic energies of thousands of my fellow sapphic readers collectively swooning at the sight. I’m so happy I can’t wait for you all to drink in that raw sapphic beauty!
Her dark eyes meet mine and I look between her and Johanna. In the company of women like this—sharp-edged as raw diamonds but with soft hands and hearts, not strong in spite of anything but powerful because of everything—I feel invincible. Every chink and rut and battering wind has made us tough and brave and impossible to strike down. We are made of mountains—or perhaps temples, with foundations that could outlast time itself.
Johanna was both unapologetic and soft, openhearted and fierce and I was in awe of how she remembered to be all these things at once. She’s one of those watery people whose compassion, emotions, and ability to break down the barriers of the people around them are a remedy to this world’s problems, the ones with the beautiful eyes through which everything sparkles, and nothing goes unnoticed. And like Felicity at first, many have inaccurately been led to believe that softness translates to pliancy and docility. But a soft woman doesn’t mean a fragmented woman. Softness is not weakness, it was only the way Johanna’s heart showed itself. It takes great courage to stay delicate in a world this cruel, just as there’s great strength in the gentleness of femininity. I love her and her fondness for pretty dresses and her wanting to pet every dog she passes and how she took by a storm all the men who misguidedly thought they could not have designed a better avenue to power for themselves than a gentle woman.
Softness can be an armor, even if it isn’t my armor.
Sim. My favorite thing about Sim is all of her. Being the daughter of one of the most fearful pirate commodores had left her ready for whatever the world dishes out her way. No matter how many obstacles were put between her and that moment of attaining her dreams, it stayed. She was stubborn that way, always claiming space that they wouldn’t surrender her, never bowing to the way other people saw her and especially not to the misplaced notion of a woman’s primary role being entirely divorced from her intellect and strength, much less the possibility of taking on a pirate lord’s legacy. And honestly? There are so many people out there who have the potential to love and could love me back and none of them are Sim? I am genuinely so upset?
Felicity. I need an extra heart to love Felicity with. She grows so much over the course of this book, from the off-putting, judgmental and slightly haughty girl we met in the first book (though it was more aptly termed “prickly as a cactus” by Sim). Her education on internalized misogyny is a fundamental part of her character arc and serves as the foundation of her growing ability to realize that you can’t advocate for women and still tear women down for being women or hold other women to the arbitrary and restrictive gender roles you’ve been socialized into and further the ingrained sexist stereotype of not being “Like Other Girls“. She eventually openly admits that she “often cast herself in the role of the misunderstood and sympathetic heroine” in the stories she told of herself and forgot that outside the mighty walls and wide ramp she’s built around herself, other people exist beyond her impression of them.
I’m learning there is no one way for life to be lived, no one way to be strong or brave or kind or good. Rather there are many people doing the best they can with the heart they are given and the hand they are dealt. Our best is all we can do, and all we can hold on to is each other. And, zounds, that is more than enough.
Felicity is also on the aro-ace spectrum and this book has brought into center stage so many important discussions that made my ace heart feel so incredibly validated! Lady’s Guide challenges the notion that romantic love is the end goal of all forms of love, highlighting the fact that other forms of love can be just as fulfilling. Platonic love and romantic love are not ranks, tiers, or levels. They are not above or below each other. Romance is not a promotion and being content with friendship is not a demotion. Romance is not “more than” a purely platonic relationship. Platonic love and romantic love are concepts that exist on equal terms, side by side. Sometimes, they happen to coincide. Other times, they don’t intersect at all. It’s important to understand that neither is inherently more or less valuable and it’s solely up to each and every individual!
“And you don’t want anyone with you?” Sim asks, raising her head. “No family?”
“I want friends. Good friends, that make up a different kind of family.”
“That sounds lonely.”
“It wouldn’t be lonely,” I say. “I’d like to be on my own, but not alone.”
“That’s not the sort of lonely I meant.”
“Oh.” I’m not sure why I’m blushing, but I feel it swell in my cheeks. “Well, that sort of aloneness doesn’t feel lonely to me.”
Lastly, I have to talk about Monty and Percy. They took a layer of ice off my heart. Seeing them again was like picking up midsentence as if I’d been there with them the whole time. I love them so much they’re so cute I want to make a playlist about them. I WANT TO BREAK THEIR DOOR DOWN, STOMP INTO THEIR HOUSE AND give them lots of self-validation and love for their kind souls. I’m still in ruins over the fact that at this very moment – this VERY moment – Percy is alive and smiling and spending some quality time wrapped up in his boyfriend in the home they made together. There were so many instances where I had to stop and squeal or sigh or close my eyes and wrinkle my nose and forehead because they cherish each other so much and they care about Felicity SO MUCH (I swear Percy prematurely ages at least ten years every day just worrying about Felicity’s general wellbeing and Felicity referring to him as her “brother” filled the cold hollow inside me)
“Love has made you terribly soft, you know,” I say to him without looking.
“I do,” he replies. “Isn’t it grand?”
This book is a tribute to all the women who – as a result of their strength and defiance of gender norm – have all been roundly abused in history as trollops, tramps and tarts. The women who were told not to wander, not to stray, because for women like them, with voyager hearts and roots splat across the earth, the world offers only misery. The women who did not give up their aspirations, who did not lower their eyes and duck their chins, who did not let men’s arrogance drive them away from their ambitions, whose hearts did not shrink from their own desires and whose weathered hands held on to their dreams.
I want to grow the kind of bright, fierce heart that lived in these women.
Everyone has heard stories of women like us—cautionary tales, morality plays, warnings of what will befall you if you are a girl too wild for the world, a girl who asks too many questions or wants too much. If you set off into the world alone.
Everyone has heard stories of women like us, and we intend to make more of them.