The Gay Teen’s Guide to Defeating a Siren: Book 1 The Seeker by Cody Wagner is what happens when you combine the plotbunnies of “What if one of those gay conversion therapy camps was scamming the parents and all the kids inside got to grow up in a secret supportive environment instead?” and “What if Hogwarts had queer students?” The similarities to the Harry Potter books jumped out at me right away — the principal is an appealing, fatherly figure who’s hiding things about magical bad guys from the students, the protagonist quickly acquires a smart, assertive female friend, and by the end of the book a paranormal Big Bad has taken precedence over stressing about tests and bullies.
There are some interesting differences, though. The Golden Trio is replaced by a Golden Quartet that isn’t all white, for one thing. There’s a main character death that I wasn’t expecting because the HP books didn’t get that dark until book four (disclaimer since I know my fellow queer girls will go there: it is not either of the MC’s two lesbian besties.) The paranormal aspect of the book is also really different from Rowling’s in that it posits the idea: what if some of the homophobes out there are being mind-controlled by evil magical forces? In other words, unlike the complete sequestering from the outside world that Rowling’s magic users adopt, this one is related directly to it. Also, this is different from Hogwarts in that the kids aren’t at a magic school–they’re at a regular school, just one for queer kids that’s lying to parents and saying it’s a cure camp–but it still felt very Hogwartsy to me.
An interesting detail that I appreciated is that, like most other YA I’ve read, the main character has to deal with the “cool kid” bullies. Even when everyone at the entire school is gay like he is. As someone who was hurt quite a bit by a “cool couple” within my queer community as a teenager this really resonated. We can be kind of awful to each other even within our marginalizations. And there’s a lot more to being accepted than marginalizations or lack thereof–there’s that intangible, elusive quality of “cool” that often has a lot to do with not expressing your interests too enthusiastically or who knows what else.
There’s a lot less romance than I’ve usually read in YA — just the faintest hints (the bullies are a couple, the protagonist does get one kiss, & you can tell who the love interest is going to be as the series moves forward) — but given the age of the kids that makes complete sense and it’s also really important that we get queer YA out there that shows queer kids making friends with each other and getting to live a queer life apart of specifically romantic and/or sexual relationships.
Something else I thought was neat about the book is that, while YA in first person often has faily statements on the part of the teenage narrator — for example, fat-shaming — this book was the first one I’d ever seen where the instant the narrator says something faily he immediately dials it back. He knows he fucked up. Like, there’s a whole paragraph of him criticizing a homophobic pastor’s appearance, and then he backpedals and acknowledges he’s being unfair to criticize the way he looks instead of who he is as a person. I am so grateful for that. There is so much gratuitous fat-shaming in YA, and even if it’s supposed to be unreliable narrator kids don’t always know that. He even follows up a comment about Nazis with admitting he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (It wasn’t antisemitic, but it was an inappropriate comparison–think Godwin’s Law–and I was so impressed that the character swallowed his own words within the same paragraph.)
It’s hard for me to know what to do with the ending emotionally because while it was a good ending, it’s also like the Harry Potter books in that now I need to wait for the next book to see where this is going. The Big Bad is still out there, but the students being protected by the school are still safe from their parents and from the outside world.
Definitely worth a read if you’re one of those people constantly grasping for “but where were we” in your Hogwarts fan-time, and love the idea of vast conspiracies of gay teachers protecting gay students from homophobic parents. There isn’t really bi representation in this book (and if there were trans kids at the school they weren’t mentioned or shown) but I didn’t catch any biphobia, either.