Title: Running With Lions
Publisher: Duet Books ( Interlude Press)
Publication Date: June 7, 2018
Length: 266 pages
Reviewed by Erin
Bloomington High School Lions’ star goalie Sebastian Hughes should be excited about his senior year: His teammates are amazing, and he’s got a coach who doesn’t ask anyone to hide their sexuality. But when his estranged childhood-best-friend Emir Shah shows up at summer training camp, Sebastian realizes the team’s success may end up in the hands of the one guy who hates him. Determined to reconnect with Emir for the sake of the Lions, he sets out to regain Emir’s trust. But to Sebastian’s surprise, sweaty days on the pitch, wandering the town’s streets, and bonding on the weekends spark more than just friendship between them.
As an avid bordering on obsessive fan of YA (Young Adult) books, I have had Running With Lions by Julian Winters on my most anticipated reads list for a very long time. When I saw the cover, (and omg, that cover! I want it as a poster to hang in my office it's so wonderful!) the anticipation turned almost fanatical. I can't believe this is Julian's debut book. I can't believe this book is finally here. I can’t believe how much this book made me feel—ALL the things in case you were wondering. And I have to mention the cover. Again. Seriously, y'all. I feel like a broken record whenever I review an Interlude Press/Duet book. Their bookcovers are beyond compare and their cover artists are so talented and among the very best out there. Running With Lions has all my favorite things found in a YA book: lovable, imperfect characters, that feeling of finding out what this thing called life is all about—the good and the bad, and of course, discovering the ups and downs of love and sex and all that entails.
Sebastian Hughes loves soccer camp. It's his chance to get away and be with the teammates he considers family. He loves soccer. It gives him a place to be accepted for who he is, especially since his soccer coach makes it so no one on the team has to hide their sexuality. Sebastian is bisexual, his best friend, Mason is also bi, and his other best friend, Willie, is gay. Sebastian has a great family, too. His mom is all kinds of awesome, and though his dad and the rest of his siblings didn't get the same page time in the book as his mom, you can tell the family is tight knit and supportive. So, all in all, Sebastian has it pretty good. He's a senior this year, the goalie for his beloved team, and yeah the what happens after high school looming on the horizon has him freaked out, but all things considered, his life is made of win. Except when he arrives at soccer camp and sees someone from his past that threatens his perfect summer.
Enter Emir Shah, ex-best friend. Sebastian hasn't spoken to Emir in years though when they were just kids they were inseparable. From the first moment Sebastian spies Emir standing and glaring at everyone and everything, Sebastian knows this year at camp isn't going to go at all like he imagined it would. For a good portion of the book, Emir was... in a word, difficult. It's not necessarily a bad thing per se, but his prickly words and actions made him a little hard to understand. Oh, you get glimpses of the vulnerability beneath all that snarl and sarcasm, especially in the moments when it's just him and Sebastian but it took me a good portion of the book to really get him, but when I did? Yeah, I was all in.
Since Running With Lions is told from Sebastian's POV, we get all of his inner monologue and thoughts and at times this was a lesson in frustration because his actions didn't always match his feelings. He knows as a leader on the team and the soon to be nominated captain, it’s his job to make sure the team as a whole in in sync. Sebastian is a bit of a do-gooder (not a bad thing), the responsible one—especially in the 3-way friendship between him, Mason and Willie—and the person the coaches count on to keep everyone in line. But his pull toward Emir is more than just making it work as teammates. Through Sebastian’s thoughts we can see just how close he and Emir were at one point and how Sebastian is conflicted because Emir isn’t exactly the most welcoming of people, or the most liked.
Sebastian doesn't want to care about anyone's opinion. It's his friendship, not theirs. But being a teenager is one good day of being a superhero, followed by a hundred days of being self-conscious about every little damn thing. It's one big, selfish moment when you don't give a shit about other people's opinions, but you still want your friends to love who you are and what you do.
There’s a lot of conflict in Sebastian. Trying to figure out his future, his friendships, his growing attraction to Emir and dealing with his own body issues and lack of self-confidence. So, really, something all teenagers (and everyone in general) deals with. I like this. I like that Julian Winters made all of these characters so relatable and genuine. They aren’t perfect. They don’t make the best decisions, but that’s life, that’s growing up and finding your way in the world. The quiet moments between Sebastian and Emir, away from the team and when it’s just the two of them are particularly lovely and swoon-worthy without being overly sentimental or trite.
I really loved how, though not a huge part of the book, Emir’s Muslim faith plays a big part in who he is. He doesn’t hide it, in fact he’s proud of it. Sure some of his attitude is a defense mechanism because he’s so painfully shy, but it’s a part of him and he’s not afraid to show it. The diversity in the book is also wonderful. Gay, bi, black, white, Muslim all have a voice in the book. There’s no over the top drama, no angst-ridden coming out though Sebastian worries about his family’s and best friend’s reactions, and there’s not a whole lot of angst at all as a matter of fact. This is a character driven novel, full of diverse characters just trying to figure out their lives.
Is it a perfect book? No, but no book ever is. There are a few places where the writing was choppy, where things weren’t made all that clear, but then there are passages like this that made it so I didn’t care about the few missteps.
From the edge of the pitch, the sun skids across the sky like a red cannonball rolling toward nothing. It leaves only purple and orange bruises from a war between light and dark. In the evening glow, Emir is soft, approachable. Without a beanie, his hair is fluffy. A thrift-store T-shirt and loose sweatpants compliment his cozy appearance. Granted, Sebastian's view of Emir lately has been nothing but rough, so maybe he's simply appreciating the moment.
Running With Lions is YA at its finest. Characters struggling with the day to day changes and choices all teens must face. It’s about friendship, and loyalty, and what it’s like to be queer today. Running With Lions embraces the fear, the hope, the joy of having your whole life ahead of you and not being a hundred percent certain what you want that life to look and be like. And of course, there’s the love. The love of friends who are like brothers, and the love of someone who just gets you, who you can be your true self with. I am so impressed with this debut of Julian Winters and I am so excited to see what he does next!
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