Thank you so much to Lex Croucher and the team over at Bloomsbury for my ARC!
What would you do if you had been betrothed to someone since birth, spent your whole lives hating one another, bullying one another and trying your very best to get out of the arrangement, only to realise later that both of you are queer in a world that won’t accept that? Well Gwen and Arthur couldn’t be less attracted to one another if they tried, but an uneasy alliance is formed on the foundation of keeping one another’s secrets. As Arthur battles with his mental health, the expectations of his traitorous father and a blossoming alcohol addiction, all whilst nursing a rather large crush on Gwen’s brother, Gabriel, his reluctant fiancée is coming to terms with herself, accepting that she is attracted to the determined and unashamedly individual Knight of the Realm, Bridget; and learning how to let go and enjoy herself.
The beauty of this enemies to allies to friends path is seeing how they find validation, support and platonic love in the person they least expected. Arthur cannot help but cajole and irritate Gwen into trying new things and accepting herself, and in return she holds him up and supports him through his addiction and the following recovery. It may not have started out as the most gentle and caring relationship, but it is a beautiful example of why we need friends who see the world in an entirely different light to us.
I adored this book from start to finish. It is genuinely funny, tense at points and offers multiple perspectives on the queer experience that I think are really important to discuss. The main three points of view on queerness come from Arthur, Gwen and Gabriel, all of whom engage with it very differently. Arthur is firmly aware of his sexuality and, though he knows the society he lives in won’t accept it, he finds his own moments of joy. Gabriel, however, though he is aware that his sexuality lies outside of the heterosexual boundaries, is a perfect example of internalised homophobia. He believes there is no scope to be himself and will not allow himself to indulge in stolen moments the way Arthur does. He feels the pressure keenly to keep up the perfect image and, because he feels trapped in his pretence, he lashes out at others who do allow themselves to voice these thoughts. To me, Gwen reads as your typical baby gay. Easily influenced by her peers, with the definite possibility of going the same way as her brother, her path is diverted by the elder queer, in this case Arthur, who opens the door to other options and shows her that there is a way to be happy with herself as she is. Of course there is also something to be said for Bridget in this equation, but it is Arthur who takes on the role of guide for Gwen as she explores herself.
Now for something that is purely speculative on my part. It is my absolute belief that Gwen and Gabriel are both autistic. Their mannerisms and behaviours, though different from each other, are both indicative of the autistic need for routine, special interest hyperfocus and acute distress at disruption of the day to day pattern. They also both display the social anxieties and ineptitudes that often go hand in hand with autistic individuals. I love the way they both grow and come into themselves over the course of the book, knitting their identities together in parallel.
What a tremendous first foray into Young Adult for Lex Croucher, who usually writes within the realm of queer adult romance. I can’t wait to see what they produce next.