Let me start this off by saying that I think it’s silly that booksellers feel the need to state whether the romance in a novel is “Gay or Lesbian”. It’s not like we label books “Straight”. That said, if you are homophobic, don’t read this story. If you are not homophobic, but are unsure if you’ll be comfortable reading a story where two boys fall in love, go for it. If you can put your hands in the air ‘cuz you just don’t care, read it.
All that said, when I started reading A Call to Arms I was a little wary. I hadn’t read a book in Kindle format before and the spaces between each paragraph threw me off as well as made me notice typos a little more than I usually do. Beyond that, I worried that as a debut YA novel, there would be some ACME hammer of doom level moralisation. Was there a point or two where I thought, “And the moral of the story is…”? Sure, but it wasn’t a negative in this case. It made sense because the characters were trying to figure things out at the time. Also, at the beginning I wasn’t quite sure how old Gib, something that struck me as odd for a YA book. Sometimes he feels fifteen or sixteen, at other times he’s totally thirteen. By the time you get into the book and read a little more of his backstory, his emotional and mental maturity/immaturity starts to make sense. Trust me, when you get through the first few pages and really get into the story, you’ll have fun. It’s well worth it.
A Call to Arms is a fun romp through a new world and a coming-of-age story that I think is going to become quite epic. The reader follows Gibben Nemesio, a poor farm boy from Willowdale, who is struggling to run the family farm and take care of two younger brothers at the ripe old age of thirteen. Technically, Gib is an adult in his world, but he is still in that strange, transitional time emotionally where he’s trying to become the man he wishes to be and often feels like he’s failing. His older sister, Liza, made the controversial choice to to join the military before the Nemesio children’s father passed on and only gets leave when something truly dramatic is happening. So, when she shows up back on the farm without contacting them first, Gib’s anxiety swings into high gear. He worries about all sorts of things, but finds out real life is worse than his imagination. He has been drafted and has two days to get the farm set for winter, figure out what’s going to happen with the younger boys, gather his courage, and head to the capital city of Silver to be trained as a soldier.
When he reaches Silver he finds that he doesn’t know the rules of highborn society, is behind on his studies, and has been placed with a roommate that many of the other students shun for a reason unbeknownst to him. Needless to say, Gib makes some pretty hilarious mistakes, wins over a loyal group of friends from all ranks of society, and makes himself a few enemies as well. His penchant to say what he’s thinking in exactly the wrong situation socially, but exactly the right situation morally, means that he gathers the people who are sick of the politics and supports the people who really need him.
Then, to complicate things even more, Gib overhears a plot to kill the king and everyone he tells laughs it off as something that happens all the time, including one of the king’s sons. To top it off, when his friends frequent a brothel Gib realizes that he’s not interested in the women, he’s attracted to his roommate. Panicking and trying to piece together his past reactions to boys his own age and a little older, Gib has a rather rough night sleeping and a whole set of self-revelations.
Throughout this book the reader will find themselves asking questions. Why is Joel ostracized? Does money make a person happy? Is the price of wealth worth it? What does equality mean? What do you do when you know something is wrong? Will Gib accept himself? Will he tell his roommate about his feelings? Will his friends be able to support each other when others are against them? What is the meaning of family? Will Gib ever fit in at Academy? What will happen to his brothers? Can Gib save the king?
Having two orphans, two poor boys, several wealthy boys, one super wealthy boy, two boys who are gay, a girl who will be damned if she’s forced to marry instead of becoming a soldier, princes of various temperaments, stepchildren, politicians, good people/parents, snarky humorists who make you laugh, and cruel classists gives you a depth that many YA books are lacking. Every one of these characters is different in some way and has their own, unique voice. Not a single person is flat or boring. I think we’re just starting to understand the complexity of this world and I’m looking forward to the next installment.