Sebastian Hughes is not ready to face the reality of his upcoming senior year and looming graduation. He has no idea what he wants from his future and the pressure he feels to figure it all out is overwhelming him. But first, it’s summer, and it is once again time for Sebastian to attend soccer training camp with his friends and teammates. Sebastian is the goalie and a team leader and he loves the sport and the bond he has with his team.
Things get shaken up when Emir Shah shows up at camp. Emir and Sebastian were the best of friends for years growing up, but Emir had to go out of the country and when he returned, things were never the same between them. Now Emir seems to want nothing to do with Sebastian; in fact, he doesn’t seem to want anything to do with any of the guys and that is throwing off the team dynamics and their chances of a successful season.
Slowly Sebastian and Emir begin to move past their issues and Emir grows more confident in his role on the team. Although Sebastian has long known he is bisexual, he has never been with a guy and the two begin to explore a relationship. But Sebastian’s fears and uncertainties are still getting in the way. He worries about his future, doesn’t know how to share his feelings with Emir, and is concerned about the team and his leadership role. But Sebastian needs to believe in himself, trust that his future will work out, and take a chance for something more with Emir.
Running with Lions is a lovely debut novel from author Julian Winters. Winters does a wonderful job capturing those feelings of uncertainty for a young man on the cusp of adulthood. Sebastian is looking at his future looming before him with fear as he feels like he needs to have it all figured out, yet he has no idea what he wants besides soccer. He is a team star and a leader and that has long been his identity, his teammates his closest friends. He is suddenly looking at that all ending and it stirs up all his uncertainties and many of his old insecurities, including some body image issues from some past bullying. On top of that, he has this new relationship with Emir, one where he is with another boy for the first time, and where he has real feelings involved. Winters makes Sebastian feel so relatable and I loved seeing his journey to gaining more confidence, as well as settling into his connection with Emir.
Winters also conveys well those blissful days of summer where the long days and close friends can make things seem magical. Not that it is all smooth sailing, as Sebastian and his teammates hit rough patches. But we can really see the bond they have with each other, the way they support one another and stick together, and why Sebastian is so fearful of losing it all when the season ends. While perhaps not fully realistic, the soccer team is a haven for boys of all sexual orientations and gender identities; the coaches make sure of that. Winters also includes some great racial/religious diversity in the story, including a Muslim main character, and it is great to see a book geared toward young adults that really showcases diversity in so many ways.
The story is told in third person, present tense from Julian’s POV, which I will admit isn’t my favorite style. I often find it hard to get into the flow of a story written this way and there were times when that was an issue here as well. On the other hand, it gives an immediacy and an intensity to the narrative that I think works nicely here. I would have liked a bit more understanding about Emir, as he has a lot of anger and can be standoffish and while it is mostly explained, I never felt like I fully got him. There are also a lot of characters here and it took me a bit to feel like I was following all the pieces, especially at the beginning when so many people are being introduced.
For those with younger readers, I’ll note that there is no on page sex here, though it is clear that Sebastian and Emir are sexually active. There is also some reference to pot use, as well as on page drinking/drunkenness by teens as young as fourteen. However, I do feel that the reading level and subject matter is appropriate even for younger teens and the issues portrayed, as well as the messages of diversity and acceptance of yourself and others, make this is worthwhile read for teens, as well as adults.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story. Sebastian is such an interesting and well developed character, and I could really feel for him as he struggles with the pressure to figure things out, ultimately realizing that it is ok not to. The story captures the bonds of friendship, the bloom of first love, and the sense of self discovery all really nicely and this is definitely one to check out.
P.S. How gorgeous is this cover?