tl;dr: If you enjoy beautiful, slow burn fanfiction, read this immediately. But even if not, read the rest of the review to find out why you should fall in love with Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue.
One of the minor downsides of working in the library industry and not quite reading enough books in a month to get the really good ARCs is that you can get a bit behind on the latest books. Once in a while you’ll get a heads up that something is coming out and you’ll get to be first on the holds list, but at least for me, more often than not, I’m a month or more behind the times when it comes to hyped new books. But in a way, it’s a more interesting position to be in. You can watch a book hit the shelves, fly off them, see the number of people on holds list grow and shrink, see how many copies, on average, end up going overdue. You can learn a lot about the book and how well it’s going to be received in the long term based on how it was first received in libraries. I’ve been on the record as saying The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is one of the most important books of the last decade; while many people agree with me, not as many of them have seen library copies of THUG returned, battered but clearly cared for, the way teen girls hold their hands over Starr’s image on the cover, and how we could have 25 copies without a single copy available on any shelf, across 14 locations.
I was one of the first to get my name on the holds list for Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, and one of the first to get it in; but I had to return some books to check it out, and my hold lapsed. (They were in my work bag, but I never took them out to the returns desk; the wonders of ADD.) By the time I got myself back on the list, it had already grown significantly, and I only just got a chance to read it again last week. Since I first got the chance to read it in Mid-May, I have seen its popularity explode. It seems like every Booktuber and YA author on Twitter had devoured it in half a second, and I felt like I was seeing the cover so often I was dreaming about it. While well-written queer romances are in a nice period right now, where they often get the hype they deserve, the book sparked and held a surprisingly strong candle.
I went into this book knowing that it was probably a genuinely good book, and that regardless, I am a massive, massive sucker for stories of fictionalized modern royalty. In fact, I’ve never seen the BBC Show Merlin, but I have read a lot of Merlin fanfiction, just because they have a lot of good modern Alternate Universe stories (AUs) where Arthur is still the crown prince of England, with all that means in our modern culture. In a way I wonder if Merlin fanfiction wasn’t a major influence on this book. The book has a rollicking, intense, momentum-driven tone that’s very common in certain fanfiction circles. Alex’s personality type isn’t quite Merlin, since protagonist Merlin is often characterized as sullen and awkward, but Alex’s bright confidence, brilliance, and total idiocy about his own feelings reeks of Teen Wolf ‘s Stiles Stilinski or of Tony Stark, as they characterized in fanfiction. And honestly, this is all a very meandering way to say I pretty much knew I’d enjoy the book.
But that understates how much the book blew me away. It’s an incredibly good, sappy, passionate, funny romance, but it’s got all of that and more, a million separate facets that really help it become something unique and valuable. A key aspect of modern royalty stories that I am obsessed with is that they wrestle with the ramifications of the crown, of what it means to step into a world filled with destiny and history when you’re a modern, normal person. Red, White and Royal Blue not only addresses this in satisfyingly romantic ways, but addresses a million complex, multifaceted aspects to that question. Prince Henry, in a family and traditional lifestyle that he feels pressured to maintain, has to navigate what is even ethical to do, let alone what will make him happy. And Alex not only has to tackle that as someone who loves Henry, but also has to tackle the immense history and meaning behind his role as the President’s son. In the story, Alex’s mother, Ellen Claremont, won the election in 2016 to become the first woman president, and Alex became the first Latino First Son. Alex is constantly aware of what that means, and while he always fights for what’s right, his evolving relationships in the novel really allow us many glimpses into what that might mean, for a bi-racial, bisexual young man who wants to make the world the better place it can be.
And the world of Red White and Royal Blue is a better place. In the acknowledgments McQuiston mentions that she started this novel prior to the 2016 election, and really struggled in the aftermath of Trump’s election on how to write about a world capable of electing its first woman president when, in our own timeline, we have been increasingly struggling with how much we have lost since that election. The story she ultimately tells in this novel is very raw and complex, and it feels better for it. At times it’s more pointed–i.e. comments about private e-mail servers–but at other times it is simply trying to put to words the reality many of us young, bisexual Americans have always believed would be ours for the taking. That the characters continue to struggle with issues of bigotry, party lines, and disenfranchisement that we are all too familiar with makes Red White and Royal Blue’s story all the more valuable.
I’ll give you a spoiler that shouldn’t, if you’re genre savvy, be a spoiler: this is a romance. It has a happy ending. But rarely have I read such an incredible one. Red White and Royal Blue makes it beautiful and meaningful to care, to have a beating heart. It champions the beauty of queer history and the complex realities of what it means to make something good and right in this world. It holds what is good and important about English monarchal history, and about American independence, in shaking, loving hands. It believes in victory. And it believes in the absolutely heart-rending, forever quality of a deep and true love, even when it’s between a fast-talking Texas boy and an uppercrust British royal in Burberry.
If you don’t read Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston as soon as humanly possible, you’re missing out on a book that actively gives you love, faith, and hope. And that’s not worth missing out on.