It’s the start of Jordan Sun’s junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she’s an Alto 2, which—in the musical theatre world—is sort of like being a vulture in the wild: She has a spot in the ecosystem, but nobody’s falling over themselves to express their appreciation. So it’s no surprise when she gets shut out of the fall musical for the third year straight.
Then the school gets a mass email: A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshiped … revered … all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.
I received an electronic copy from the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Books about characters cross-dressing to get into places they can’t reach as their own gender are always a bit of a risk. Movies like She’s The Man are wildly cissexist and therefore insensitive towards transgender people, which is frankly unnecessary. But I’ve heard good things about this book and had been assured the subject matter would be handled sensitively.
The first thing that jumped out to me was the rich writing style. Riley Redgate has a real talent for description and figurative speech. The narration and dialogue is filled with humour–from the clever to the downright puerile because hello teenagers–in a way that feels totally organic. I kept reading more than I intended at a time because it kept sucking me in.
I also really related to the struggles of attending a performing arts school, as a musical theatre kid myself, especially that feeling of never being the best everything and being shunted aside because of things you can’t change about yourself. I have the opposite problem to Jordan in that I’m a ridiculously high soprano who doesn’t belt (or dance particularly well, and therefore was never going to be a certain teacher’s first choice for anything), but I could definitely still relate to what she was dealing with.
Jordan has such a rich inner world in a way that is sometimes missing from novels, in that there’s so much going on with her that she keeps to herself. Her struggles coming from an impoverished family were raw and hard-hitting and, as a non-American, I appreciated how well it was explained how the restrictions on these particular welfare programs often mean they don’t help the people in need as much as they should.
I also related really hard to Jordan coming to terms with her bisexuality. It’s something I still struggle with a little bit, and other people’s attitudes about it (which is addressed a tiny amount in this book) are a part of that. The whole thing about there being signs that you don’t take for what they really are until much later also really resonated with me.
This novel has a diverse set of characters across ethnicities, sexualities, religions, class and also a character with dyslexia. As I said earlier, I was a little nervous how the cross-dressing angle would be handled in that it’s very easy to disrespect trans people while doing so. Jordan does become aware of this quite early on, which eased some of my concern. She also has an opportunity to do something later in the book that would’ve been a massive betrayal of this but chose not too, which I was glad to see. However, that moment came after an accidental reveal involving nudity which can be a common and not-so-good trope for showing a character is trans, so I’m not 100% comfortable with it. I’ve yet to see any other complaints on this front at this time of writing, so I don’t know if I’m being too nitpicky. My opinion of this, given I’m cisgender, is not entirely complete. Overall, it does seem Riley Redgate has done a good job on this front, with the exception of that trope I’m unsure about.
This book also tackles issues of sexism and toxic masculinity. Jordan feels alienated at times from the boys in the a capella group when they make some off-colour comment or an inappropriate joke relying on sexism for the punchline to work. As time wears on in her disguise, she becomes more aware of the particular pressures of masculinity, as well as that old chestnut “man up.”
People who’ve been following me for a while will likely be aware I have a lot of trouble with m/f pairings in stories, being that it’s very easy to fall into the same old cliché sexist nonsense. I didn’t have that issue in this book. The pairing grew organically out of friendship, so there was no instalove to grind my gears. I’ve seen claims that there’s a love triangle in this book. There isn’t. I don’t know where they’re getting that from. Jordan has an ex-boyfriend and kisses one other character, but I’d hardly call any of that a love triangle.
The characters were rich and multi-dimensional and I really got the sense that I knew them, especially the members of the a capella group. And it was clear, even before I read the acknowledgements at the end, that the author knew what she was talking about when it came to a capella groups and singing in general–which just made the singing-related jokes even funnier because of how truth-based they were. All this resulted in a rich, entertaining novel that is funny, relatable and heartwarming.