Running with Lions by Julian Winters
Published by: Duet, the YA imprint of Interlude Press
Genre: YA/Sports Romance/LGBT+
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: A summer of about a football/soccer captain who doesn’t know he’s a captain falling in love with a star who has no idea he’s a star and the team comprised of friends who sometimes forget how to be friends but all of whom eventually figure it out. And did I mention footie? If you loved Simon but wanted more social awareness, this one’s for you.
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.
The cover features a sun-warmed, smiling huddle of Lions. The capital “L” is because the Lions are a team, a soccer team, to be specific, and these members are heading into their senior year of high school. There’s the All-American Sebastian (Bastian), the MC, who will save his team mates over and over as they make Bad Decisions (TM). Then, there’s white-haired and gorgeous Willie, who is everyone’s friend and Bastian’s favorite to be around. And Mason, best offensive player on the team and the one who people love to hate. There’s the indefatigable Gray, the Coach’s daughter who takes no prisoners save Mason, who should really behave much, much better. There’s Hunter, who is just lovely. And Emir. Whooo. Emir. Emir, who blows hot and cold, resentful and vulnerable, foreign and other, unavoidable and untouchable, and so, so beautiful.
Who you don’t see on the cover are the adults. The parents, the coaches, the restaurant owners, all of whom are wonderfully supportive. How refreshing to see wide scale support for queer youth. In fact, the Lions’ head coach created this space on purpose to be a safe space for teens due to his own nephew being targeted. The coach didn’t like what happened so he did something about it. This doesn’t always happens. But it’s telling that Winters gave him this back story. It’s the kind of thing a queer kid would want…no, need…to see in the world. And, finally, it feels like this is happening. Nevertheless, they are a constant in the background, not needing to take the main stage in order to make a difference. And they shouldn’t.
This isn’t their story.
This story belongs to the teens. Specifically, those teens approaching the last year of high school. The ones already contemplating what comes next. The ones who know exactly and the ones who have no clue. This story belongs to those who have carried unrequited love and to those who have been too free in taking love from others. This story belongs to those who grew up together and who have missed each other and, despite having loved each other, haven’t reached out to reconnect for Reasons. This story is about getting over old hurts and creating new ones.
Running with Lions embodies teenagers. The drama. The excitement. The hope. The awfulness. In this space, Bastian and Emir find each other again. It’s tenuous. Both are vulnerable. And, let me tell you, this romance is touch and go. They hate each other. They avoid each other. They yearn. Then, inexplicably…they’re on… ’til they aren’t. And neither knows where they stand with each other until one or the other takes a stand. But, sheesh, will that even happen?
My lips are sealed.
I was especially touched by body image issues, Bastian’s in particular. While it was never named, and while it may not have been something diagnosable as an eating disorder (ED), Bastian certainly did not have a healthy relationship with his body. This was present throughout the book and was both unresolved and—aside from some supportive comments from Emir — unaddressed through to the end. On the one hand, this could have been tackled head on. The coach, for example, could have seen Bastian’s excessive workout schedule and insisted on getting him help. But I find no reason for criticism on this issue. On the contrary, it is far more realistic for Bastian’s behavior to be celebrated and, indeed, providing one more reason why Bastian is a ‘role-model’. That isn’t to say he isn’t. Because he is. But ED is already so hidden and because clever, devoted people are both clever and devoted, it is more realistic that Bastian’s self-image remains secretly problematic. I loved the subtlety of this and hope that, in reading this, readers develop sympathy for those who suffer from ED.
What you may not like: The initial barrage of characters is hard to follow. Granted, we are meeting a team, plus friends, all of their exes, and, of course, family. Plus, the nicknames. Sebastian is Bastian. Willie is sometimes Willster. Mason is Mace. Grey is Grace. This eventually settles out but for a while, I needed notes.
Additionally, pop culture references as metaphors are peppered liberally through the novel. Most are well known and, to a large degree, speak to how the characters have been shaped by their choices in movies, books, and music. But for those unaware of these references, it can be alienating —a clever twist considering how alienation and adoption are a running theme for the book. I’m not convinced this connection was intentional.
What you will love: The inclusivity, the diversity, the struggles teens have with both, the authenticity, the occasions when characters rise above who they were to become something better. Winters wrote these characters with love. Genuinely. Even when the characters are lacking in thoughtfulness — or worse — I found myself rooting for them.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra