Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston

I am torn—so, so torn—with this one.

The last YA book I read with a political overtone was Meg Cabot’s All-American Girl, when I was fourteen. Twelve years later, I picked up Red, White, and Royal Blue at the behest of some good friends who loved it. I’m not saying this review will compare the two books because they are quite different in tone and character. I’m just saying it’s been a long time since I read a book with a political overtone, and I’m going to have a harder time articulating my feelings about it, partially because of my audience, and partially because I’ve never read a gay romance before.

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Alex Claremont-Diaz is First Son of the United States, setting himself on a political career path. When political obligations put him in the same room as Henry, the Prince of England, though, it causes an altercation that could provoke tension between their countries. To smooth over the problem, Alex and Henry are ordered to stage a truce. What no one expected was for Alex and Henry to actually become friends, but even more so for them to become lovers. With Henry’s legacy, and Alex’s mother’s presidency, on the line, the two will have to tread carefully to keep their love alive, but more so to keep their respective nations from upending themselves…

I probably would not have read this book if not for my friends’ eager suggestion. But I can see why they did. Alex and Henry are fully realized characters, and I didn’t prefer one’s story to the other. The dialogue is fast and sharp, and when the story gets going, you can’t easily stop reading. The stakes in this story are high, not just in terms of the romance, but also what’s happening politically. And in a way, it truly is a modern fairy tale, because now that our sensibilities about homosexuality have loosened, a man-on-man romance, rather than the usual man-on-woman, is the center of the story.

But here is where I’m torn, because, on the one hand, I do like the story and the characters. But on the other hand, the book walks a very fine line between telling a good story and pushing an agenda.

Here’s what I mean. Besides the gay romance, Alex is half-white, half-Mexican, and his mother is President of the United States. Those are three huge progressive boxes checked off here, and by themselves, they would be fine. But they seem to fight for attention here. Fighting the outcome of coming out as a bisexual, on top of fighting for a female presidency’s second term, seems a bit much. I wouldn’t say that the story overreaches itself, but it comes close sometimes.

The romance itself stumbles sometimes as well. There is some buildup to Alex and Henry’s relationship, but it almost turns on a dime. One moment, they’re friends, and then boom, they’re in the bedroom ravishing each other. Once the romance gets going, it’s fine, but it comes on just a little too quickly.

Now, this might be because I am straight and I don’t identify with the main characters’ sexuality, and that’s fine. There need to be books out there for gay and bisexual people, just as there need to be books with biracial protagonists, or books that imagine a female U.S. president. And I certainly shouldn’t hate a story for trying to be progressive on so many levels. In the end, this is a harmless romantic romp that just wasn’t quite my kind of book.

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