Nothing in his fifteen years of existence has ever gone Billy Redsky’s way. His mother’s the local lush and his brother makes him sell weed; it’s no wonder his whole family has a bad rap around the reservation and beyond. Billy couldn’t care less—until he’s forced into detention after a dust-up with a senior, René Oshawee, the coolest guy in school. Even when René brushes Billy off based on rumor alone, there is something about the upperclassman that makes Billy want to prove he’s not just so much trash. What starts as a loathsome assignment to write an essay about how Billy and René could solve their issues without resorting to fisticuffs actually kicks off a tentative relationship that fills a very deep, very important space in Billy’s life.
But even good things come with a cost. Both Billy and René struggle with accepting, addressing, and acting on their feelings. It’s especially frustrating for Billy, because he feels René runs hot and cold with no indication about what sets him off. And if it’s one thing Billy is learning, it’s that he wants to run hot with René. Things get somewhat easier and somewhat harder when Billy lands in foster care, but even with an improved home life, it’s not easy to cross the cultural/class gap that exists between him and René. However, with patience and time, Billy may have a shot at something real with the guy of his dreams.
Two Princes is a young adult story featuring a main character and love interest who are both indigenous and queer. Billy Redsky is fifteen and lives on a reservation and is bisexual; over the course of the book, he embraces more of the traditions of his people. René Oshawee is sixteen-going-on-seventeen and the son of the band’s chief (from context, I gathered that “band” is the general term for the indigenous group who lives on/is connected to a reservation) and fighting hard to keep his gay identity under wraps. I thought the book did an excellent job painting Billy as a teenager who is very naive about certain things, especially book-learning things, while also being pretty reasonably jaded about his circumstances in life and how to handle them.
The story is set in the mid-90s and Blackbird has made a huge effort to steep the prose and the dialogue in retro speech patterns. The story is set on/adjacent to a reservation in what I believe is a rural part of Canada and which is at least within driving distance of Winnipeg. The setting maybe have informed some of the slang options (all that and a bag of “ketchup chips”) and explain the use of terms I associate with earlier generations, such as bitchin’ and dig…slang travels at its own pace. Once I got used to it, I thought the overall effect helped the world building. I also noticed particular speech patterns used by Billy, such as double negatives. Again, I cannot say if this is a genuine reflection of English vernaculars used in the region, but I appreciated the consistency and certainly gave character to Billy’s dialogue.
As far as the relationship between Billy and René goes, it’s the slowest burn around. First of all, they’re in high school. Second of all, René is very much in the closet. Third of all, the area where they live is painted as being less-than-ideal for gay people (even though there was nothing on-page that indicates anything like straight up homophobia, the only other queer character is off-page only and has moved to Toronto). For all these reasons, the slow burn felt realistic and I think the reader gets plenty of time to watch Billy and René engage in tentative interactions and sharing intense moments of connection—usually a touch or a look. I did think that these moments were often accompanied by schmaltzy prose. René’s eyes, for example, were “dark melted chocolate, ready to drown [Billy] in its [sic] thick, creamy sweetness.” Such language and reactions from Billy clearly establish that he “digs” René. I just assumed René was feeling something similar, though the acknowledgment of that attraction is where the slow burn comes from. I was rather surprised that there seems to be zero on-page effort to establish or address Billy’s bisexuality. Billy seems unsure of why he has intense reactions to René at first, but never seems bothered at any stage of his journey from “I just want to be around this guy” to “I want this guy”. And the prose makes it explicity clear that Billy becomes overtly romantically and/or sexually attracted to René.
Another characteristic of the dynamic between Billy and René is the hold-and-cold attitudes they take with each other. The story is told in third person, but from Billy’s perspective. From this POV, it sounds like René is the only one being mercurial, but I feel like there is a 50-50 chance that Billy will also be equally mercurial. It made the story drag a big since it felt like these two were constantly and consistently flip-flopping on each other. For example, Billy feels entitled to René’s attention after René gives Billy a ride to school—they’re “on.” But when their paths cross later that day, René does not pay explicit attention to Billy and Billy feels slighted—they’re “off.” Billy confronts René and when René explains, Billy accepts that explanation—they’re back “on.” I can certainly see how this ups the “teenage drama” aspect of a YA story, but the frequency and the fact that they do it to each other felt a bit much for me.
Overall, I think this is a pretty good attempt at capturing teenage life. For readers, like me, who are largely uninformed of life and politics in and around a reservation, it was great having Billy as a main character who demonstrates an interest in some of the traditions…and that these traditions appear through supporting characters without pages and pages of exposition on rituals and traditions. Note that this means there are a few terms that readers will need to figure out from context (for me, it was “band” and “ribbon shirt”). The 90s lingo and dialogue felt a bit dry at times, but after a few chapters, I learned to live with it. As the setting for a new series, I think this is a wonderful introduction to Billy and René and I’m excited to see where the story goes from here.