CW: spoilers, politics, depression, long post
I was expecting cheesy YA romance. And there was a lot of that. It was pretty good.
I was not expecting a political-themed AU trying to fix the past 4 years. There was a lot of that, too. It was hopeful and nice, I can see how reading it at the right time would have been healing. Reading it now just makes me tired.
So many times in the past few years when people talk about whatever horrible thing Trump has done now, how we know for a fact that he's committed crimes both in office and to get there in the first place, etc...all I can say is “Yeah, and wouldn't it be nice if that mattered?”
Red, White, & Royal Blue takes place in a universe where it matters. And it just winds up looking delusional and unhelpful. Or maybe I'm just hopeless and bitter and that's affecting the way I read it. Probably a little of both.
It deals with the private email server drama, even a mention of Alex thinking he'd been warned about them at some point but can't remember the details, a tiny bit of foreshadowing in case anyone didn't already know where this was going from the first time we see/hear his email address.
But it does this without any mention of the Clintons even though the Obamas and a few other familiar real life characters are mentioned multiple times by name, because Alex's mom is basically the stand-in for HRC in this universe and there can't be two. You don't want her to have beaten HRC, so the latter just doesn't exist. The queen and the rest of the royal family are treated similarly.
And while I can understand the reasons for it, I'm really not comfortable about just erasing these powerful women from the universe when so much of the rest of our recent history is kept intact. It's a weird choice and I would have preferred a more complete departure from our world. It winds up feeling to me like “everything would be fine and we'd be living in a perfectly reasonable progressive world if Hillary Clinton just didn't exist.” And, you know, that's fucked up.
I know it's not what the writer means to say, since it's more like “this could be the world if misogyny and hate hadn't won in 2016.” But it feels like it's saying that. And it's digging at old wounds and really this is exactly the wrong time for me to be reading it.
It's...fine. I commented on Mastodon that it reminded me a lot of some Inception fanfic and after finishing it that still feels like the best comparison. A big difference is that these characters are quite a bit younger and their intensity feels like a bit too much for me.
Granted, when I was that age I was pretty intense, too. That's probably why I don't like it, really. At 23 I had a really unhealthy attachment to a girl I was dating who did not (I found out later) feel the same way about me, and I'm still pretty embarrassed when I think about it. At that age it's easy to feel like everything's forever, like nothing has ever been this important, that you know exactly what you want out of life and it will never change.
Then it does, and you adjust, and you learn not to expect so much or pin all your hopes on one thing or person. And one thing I really like about this book is that, in spite of all the youthful hopefulness, there's a distinction between “feeling forever about him” and “being with him forever.”
“Happily ever after” is an utterly ridiculous and even harmful concept, but temporary relationships shape you in ways that last forever. And that's important, too. I like that Alex's parents have a healthy divorce and that they can both encourage him to love without the expectation that it's supposed to be forever or that it not lasting is a failure. I think going into relationships thinking “I believe in this and think it will change me in good ways” is a better, healthier, more beneficial outlook than “til death do us part.”
So a big yay for letting them have their ridiculous early-20s emotions but also setting reasonable expectations.
Hey, bisexual characters who actually identify as bisexual! That's a major point in the book's favor. Also, non-white characters including a Latino protagonist/POV-character. He's also one of the bisexual characters, so that's awesome. I think also a trans background character maybe? But I can't remember if that was actually stated or if I made it up. If it was mentioned, it was only once in passing and I appreciate that.
I don't think every book needs to play marginalized identity bingo and I'm not stressing about a lack of asexuality or non-binary characters. What I will say is that I was originally kind of annoyed at the surprise!bisexuality because I feel like it's overused and I expect most people have an inkling by then.
BUT. I immediately got over that because he has, hands down, the best “in retrospect I guess so much is obvious” inner monologues I think I've ever read. It basically goes from “I know I'm not gay because I kissed a girl once and it was nice” to “also I can't possibly be gay because all the times I made out with my male best friend I never once freaked out about it” in about two seconds and it is amazing.
He later examines his feelings and how he kind of locked away feelings that were difficult to deal with and would hold him back and so he probably kind of knew but didn't deal with it. And that's much more relatable. Heck, I started imagining my life as a boy at like age 10 but didn't start identifying as trans until I was in my mid 20s. There's just a lot of life in the way of deep introspection. So that makes sense to me, and I like that once he does start to examine it he's all in.
Fanfic Vibes in Original Works
Yeah, this is one of those. I like them.
There were some overly silly bits, some epic karaoke that just stretches my imagination too far, etc. But overall it's nice and fun and I like that writers are leaning into the fanfic-y tendencies to focus more on feelings and relationships than traditional plotlines. I like the book most when it's doing this and least when it's trying to tell a story of political corruption.
And while, as I already said, I don't really like the erasure of some real-world people but not others...I do really like the approach of just making up our own characters as stand-ins. I just think it should be applied more universally.
Velvet Goldmine is another good example. Like, we know what archetypes they're going for in this movie. We know who these artists are supposed to be. But they're not those artists and it's not just in name, they're completely different characters in the style of real-world stars but who have their own unique experiences.
I often think bandfic writers should do something similar. Fanon seems to have its own version of everyone anyway, it seems the appeal is more the idea of gay bandmates in love than the actual people, so...just get together and everyone crowdsource an AU fan-made band that you can write about without being skeevy. Problem solved!
Or even better, a whole alternate universe full of similar bands so anyone can contribute their own and you could just build up this whole fictional music scene and they can all interact with each other. Something like that. Listen, I don't write fiction, I don't know how any of this works. It just sounds nice.
It's good, read it if you want some bisexual rep and a naively sweet love story set in a brighter and more hopeful universe than our own.