Well, you may have heard about this book – a gay YA romance/thriller was supposed to be published either in late March or early April, got a lot of backlash because of supposed insensitivities to Muslims given its setting, and was withdrawn from publication by the author.
I, like many others, was granted an eARC by the publisher, Sourcebooks Fire, shortly before the author withdrew the book from publication. I just finished the book last night, since my copy was still valid, and this is my honest review. It may not necessarily be unbiased, but it is honest.
First, I will simply assess the book itself. Then I will talk about the controversy surrounding the book. This book was a little over 300 pages. It is told from the perspective of James Mills, a black boy who is also gay and adopted. His parents are highly educated aid workers – his mother is a doctor, and his father is an engineer. They travel around the world offering their expertise, and they’ve brought their kids, Anna and James, along, so James has been around the world already. In the novel, however, Anna has already gone to college at Georgetown. He and his boyfriend wake up one day to find that James’s parents have gone missing, their home ransacked, and the town completely empty. A letter left behind reveals that his parents have been abducted, and that James and his boyfriend need to get to the embassy. This story is their attempted journey to safety.
The book alternates between James’s present-tense narrative and the letters he writes to Anna. It is in the letters we learn about James’s life before the Kosovo War and how his relationship with Tomas Sousa, his Brazilian boyfriend, started.
James’s voice is good and he is witty at times. The action in the present-day narrative is a stark contrast to the letters he sends to his sister, since life seemed very normal – going to school, exploring the town and surrounding area, hanging out with his classmates and slowly falling love with Tomas. His narrative is quite dark, as the story, at its core, is one of survival. James ends up killing at least two people on their journey to the embassy.
There is also violence, and it is graphically described. I thought it was kind of slow at the beginning, but picked up about halfway through the book.
The villain is suitably powerful and infuriating…and also brutal. Not much is said about the actual conflict that the boys get caught up in – the main antagonists are members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an organization that existed in real life, and we see foreshadowing of the villain himself and their slow takeover of the town in James’s letters to Anna.
There isn’t a whole lot of what I would call SJW preaching, except for one incident with a stereotypically blond-haired, blue-eyed, sharp-jawed German boy named Georg, who basically calls Tomas a faggot in German, or something. James punches his lights out, and is disciplined by his parents for it. Also, James uses the phrase “toxic masculinity” in one of his letters, and I am pretty sure I didn’t hear that phrase until recently. Based on where James is at the time of the Kosovo War, which was in the late 90s, he and I would be roughly the same age, give or take a couple of years. I also read a lot of teen and women’s magazines…and no mention of “toxic masculinity.”
Since this was an eARC, there were some punctuation errors and other problems, most notably some incorrect word usage that I found a bit confusing. I had to guess at what the author actually meant.
As I said, it picks up about halfway through, and is quickly-paced, but that pacing seems to be interrupted by the letters to Anna. Near the end, you’ll just want to know what happens next, not the weird shit James wanted to share with his sister (such as the first time he and Tomas have sex…I don’t know about anyone else, but I have two sisters and we didn’t talk about our sex lives with each other…that would have been weird).
So the end…the climax is good and satisfying, but the actual resolution left me wanting. The Epilogue is told in the third-person, from Anna’s perspective, and then it ends.
I also read through the Author’s Note, and I pretty much agreed with what the author was trying to say – that, often times in conflicts such as the Kosovo War, nobody is totally innocent or totally evil. Not all Serbians were evil, and not all KLA members were good. I was, however, surprised that the author’s research was done with only three or four resources, all of which were listed at the end of the author’s note.
Not only that, I still don’t know why the author thought this particular incident warranted a YA thriller, beyond wanting more people to know about it. Did he have any sort of connection to the Kosovo War?
I would normally give this book three stars on the GoodReads scale…maybe three and a half, but I gave it four stars for having a nuanced message on the nature of war and such.
So now that’s the review of the book. Now I want to discuss the issues surrounding the book.
It is said that this book is insensitive to the Albanian Muslims that were supposedly genocided by the Serbians. The book doesn’t go heavily into the conflict, which makes sense, since James and Tomas are there as its happening. Furthermore, they’re both foreigners to the land. They probably wouldn’t have the deeper understanding of a native who’s been living there for a long time or their whole lives. I wondered why the author chose to make an American kid his main character, other than the whole “staying in one’s lane” nonsense. I thought it was even more baffling that he chose another foreigner as the love interest. It might have been more interesting if James’s love interest had been a local boy. That would have also required a lot more research, and might have made it far too political for a YA novel, so I dunno.
None of that warrants cancelling the publication of this book, however. The conflict itself is handled well and not in an offensive way. The only time we really get a whole lot of romance is in James’s letters to Anna. Whenever they are romantic to each other in the present-tense narrative, it’s in the context of, “we might die here, so we should die together” or “I am not leaving you behind.” Since they’re both trying to get to the embassy (and later on, to rescue James’s mother), there isn’t much time for making out or having sex. They’re trying not to get their shoes stolen, or shot by KLA goons, etc. They’re trying to survive in a foreign country during a violent conflict in the dead of winter. That’s how gritty it is. Oh, and both boys wisely stay as far away from potential spots of conflict, and for good reason, so we don’t really see much of the conflict – just their attempts to survive.
I don’t think it is insensitive to the people that suffered through it, unless you count a couple of foreigners being present during the conflict insensitive. I think the people that complained about this book were making a big deal out of nothing.
Now, about the villain. We first meet the villain in James’s letters. He describes his new teacher, Professor Beqiri, as an Oxford-educated snob who, nonetheless, is a good teacher and expects a lot of his students. His teacher is also very anti-Serbian and expects his political beliefs to be reflected in the work he assigns to his students. Yeah, we Conservatives won’t be surprised at that. After all, a great deal of our public school teachers basically parrot their political beliefs to their students and expect those students to regurgitate those beliefs in their schoolwork.
So, it turns out that his well-dressed, well-groomed teacher abducted his parents and some of the other foreigners, including Clara, a German girl with an ambassador for a father, to help in the KLA’s efforts. He became a professor to these foreigners so that he could get closer to them.
Beqiri is an extremist and a zealot, but for the KLA’s cause, which is independence. At no point in the novel is it ever indicated that Beqiri is religious, much less Muslim. His one and only goal is that of the KLA’s goal – independence for Kosovo. He’s not a Muslim terrorist, and in fact, I don’t think Beqiri is religious at all, especially given that he’s Oxford-educated. Now, I am sure that a great deal of the KLA might have been Muslim, but that does not mean all of them were religious.
Then again, the left seems to think that Islam is an ethnicity or race. It is not. A white, red-haired dude can be Muslim, you know. Anybody can be Muslim. It is a religion, not a race or ethnicity.
So, in conclusion, the critics are utterly full of shit. This wasn’t insulting to Muslims. It took a nuanced view of the Kosovo War, and since, in the eyes of these people, Muslims can do no wrong, because they’re rather high on the Progressive Stack of Victimhood. This is also one reason why they find 9/11 memorials so offensive. Who gives a shit about the people murdered by Muslim fanatics – Muslims everywhere might feel discriminated against, and that’s clearly more important than the memory of our countrymen!
Make no mistake – the attack on the book was politically motivated. The author did not show the proper deference to one of the left’s pet victim groups. The author, though he can claim Black and Gay Victimhood Points, did not check his Privilege. Therefore, he had to be punished.
I want to thank NetGalley and the publisher for granting me a copy of this book.