GayYA is thrilled to welcome one of our new regular contributors Nathaniel Harrington!
I’m going to do my best to keep this spoiler-free, which means avoiding talking about the main plot. Briefly, it’s really good. The action is engaging, the villains are excellent, and the resolution is satisfying and still has real, long-term consequences for the main characters. Tracey balances the main plot with fantastic characterization, and that’s really what I want to talk most about here.
First, let’s talk about the handling of Braden’s sexuality. A lot of LGBTQ YA is concerned either with the complexities of coming out (and, relatedly, telling someone you like them when you don’t know how they’ll respond to your sexuality) or with elevating queer romance—proving that “love is love”, regardless of the genders of the people involved, and that a romance between two guys or two girls can be just as compelling and “universally” meaningful as a straight romance. Many books do some combination of these two things.
The Witch Eyes series does neither, and I love it.
Instead, Braden’s sexuality is essentially unremarkable: as Dennis Upkins noted in his review back in 2011, “Witch Eyes could’ve easily have worked with Braden being a heterosexual”. This isn’t to say that Braden’s sexuality isn’t important, but rather that Braden’s sexuality is basically never a source of anxiety for him. Once, in Witch Eyes, he’s briefly concerned that Trey might be straight, but that lasts for about two sentences. There’s no is-he-or-isn’t-he-gay/bi with Trey, just as a character in a straight YA novel would never spend chapters angsting about whether or not their crush was straight.
Braden’s sexuality is also unapologetic in a way that spoke to me deeply. His first impression of Trey:
The guy on the bus had been all dark-eyed smolder and danger, but Trey was more like marble and gold woven together. Under the streetlight, his dirty blond hair started to shimmer; he was tall, and moved like someone with all the confidence in the world. Even his face was taut with cheekbones, hard lines, and angles. Sadly, I was a sucker for geometry.
Later, when Trey takes him out for dinner:
I needed to stop focusing on the way cheese slid around the curve of his lips, or the way his eyes twinkled when he thought he was being cute. Not to mention the way veins sprang to life in his hands when he moved too suddenly, straining against the skin. Strong hands.
I am often 100% exactly this shallow, and to see that aspect of my sexuality represented in a book was just…refreshing. I love David Levithan’s writing, but I don’t always need to be elevated or to grapple with questions of identity. In this moment, it’s not about Braden’s romantic interest in Trey and the universality of love, it’s about Braden getting distracted because Trey’s really attractive.
Braden’s anxieties about his sexuality revolve around his youth and inexperience (coming from a background as a homeschooled kid living in rural Montana to a medium-sized coastal city where he attends a school for the first time), rather than the fact of his being gay:
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about sex, or more specifically sex with Trey. But the problem wasn’t so much about whether or not I wanted to have sex with Trey. I was more concerned with not wanting to have sex with Trey and have it be bad. I mean, he was most likely not a virgin. He’d done this before. And he’d know in an instant that I couldn’t say the same.
Braden feels honest and real to me in a way that a lot of prototypically “teenage” YA protagonists (LGBTQ or otherwise) don’t quite. This extends to other aspects of his character, too, from his sarcasm to his description of seasickness in the middle of Phantom Eyes:
I lowered my head down to my knees and spent the next forty minutes breathing slowly and surely, forcing myself to keep everything in my stomach where it belonged. It was a slow battle, and for some reason when the ferry docked on the other side of the bay, I felt like it was the best kind of victory. I was immeasurably proud of myself all for doing nothing more than keeping myself from throwing up.
As someone who gets badly carsick, I know that feeling all too well.
Basically everything about Braden resonated with some part of my experience, from his sexuality to his motion sickness to his struggle with the winter voice in Demon Eyes. He’s self-deprecating and sarcastic, and his narrative voice is a delight. There’s some comedy gold in these books, and most of it comes from Braden. (One choice moment: “The kiss started out incredibly gentle, just a random meeting of lips in the night.” Amazing.)
There are many other great things about the books, including the treatment of trauma in the second book, the complex parent-child relationships throughout the trilogy, and that one villain’s long-term contingency plan is specifically foiled by Braden being gay. I’ve seen several people describe the books as a Romeo and Juliet story, but I think that does the series a disservice: the Thorpe-Lansing feud is far better developed than the Montague-Capulet feud, and Braden and Trey’s relationship is more compelling than any version of Romeo and Juliet’s that I’ve ever seen outside of Private Romeo (which is, coincidentally(?), a gay teen adaptation of the play).
One final note: as someone who is picky about the portrayal of dreams and such in fiction, I thought Braden’s visions were very well writte
n; they captured the chaos and apparent incoherency while still giving pieces of interpretable information. I appreciated them for their atmosphere when I first read the series, and on rereading it, I can see how they add to the plot and characterization, as well—just little hints, but tantalizing ones.
Hopefully this rambling post has conveyed some of my appreciation for this series and will convince you to go read it; they really are excellent books.
Nathaniel Harrington was born and raised in suburbs of Boston, studied (comparative) literature in college, and is currently improving his Gaelic on the Isle of Skye. He has been writing gay YA since 2008 and reading it since 2009; someday he hopes to be able to share it with others in a format that isn’t half-finished NaNoWriMo first drafts and miscellaneous fragments. He enjoys working out the details of magic systems, doing citations for academic papers, reading in several languages (although he has yet to read any LGBTQ YA in a language other than English; suggestions are welcome), and obsessively categorizing books he reads on Goodreads.