Nathan‘s Review of The Lion’s Legacy by L.C. Rosen
Book One in the Tennessee Russo Series (Acts as a standalone)
Union Square and Co.
This Book is For You is You Like:
- Indiana Jones
- Queer History
- Greek mythology
This Book is Not For You if You:
- Hate any and all kinds of teenage angst
- Get annoyed by queer characters that are only defined by their queerness
- Want a more diverse queer story (this story is pretty white and cis)
Seventeen-year-old Tennessee Russo’s life is imploding. His boyfriend has been cheating on him, and all his friends know about it. Worse, they expect him to just accept his ex’s new relationship and make nice. So when his father, a famous archaeologist and reality show celebrity whom he hasn’t seen in two years, shows up unexpectedly and offers to take him on an adventure, Tennessee only has a few choices:
1. Stay, mope, regret it forever.
2. Go, try to reconcile with Dad, become his sidekick again.
3. Go, but make it his adventure, and Dad will be the sidekick.
The object of his father’s latest quest, the Rings of the Sacred Band of Thebes, is too enticing to say no to. Finding artifacts related to the troop of ancient Greek soldiers, composed of one-hundred-and-fifty gay couples, means navigating ruins, deciphering ancient mysteries, and maybe meeting a cute boy.
But will his dad let Tennessee do the right thing with the rings if they find them? And what is the right thing? Who does queer history belong to?
Against the backdrop of a sunlit Greek landscape, author L. C. Rosen masterfully weaves together adventure, romance, and magic in a celebration of the power of claiming your queer legacy.
My Review of The Lion’s Legacy
This review is going to get a little personal.
So, I guess because it’s going to get personal I should talk about myself for just a second before getting to The Lion’s Legacy. I am an archaeologist as my day job. I am also a queer man, and so this book jumped out at me as an intersection of everything I am and like – a fantasy book about the archaeology of queer history? Sign me up! Even though I usually don’t read YA books, I knew I had to jump on and get a copy of this.
And while this book was not perfect by any means, it was the ideal encapsulation of so many things that I had felt growing up. I became an archaeologist because I was always fascinated by history and the past, but I was particularly interested in those pasts that get erased. I was interested in those pasts that we don’t get to read about in school; the marginalized people who don’t get to have their names recorded for posterity. I wanted to be an archaeologist because archaeology can be a tool of the voiceless – while not everyone gets to have their lives, actions, and accomplishments preserved, everyone leaves stuff behind. And that is what archaeology is all about. It is the study of the human past – it is telling the human story – through the things people left behind.
I don’t believe that L.C. Rosen is an archaeologist or has any archaeological background, but I can tell you that he gets it. Rosen understands the power of the past, and what it feels like to be a part of a community that seems like it has no past.
Our main character, Tennessee “Tenny” Russo, is a queer teenage boy. His inherent queerness is not the driver of the novel, which was really refreshing as a reader. Instead, it’s Tenny’s desire for family and community. Tenny doesn’t have the healthiest home life. His mother is loving and caring, but his father – an archaeologist who has an Indiana Jones-esque documentary adventure show – abandoned him on a journey to Japan because Tenny accused him of stealing artifacts (more on that in a bit). And so Tenny quickly discovers that for many queer people it is the family you choose rather than your genes that are important (and this is true even if you have a loving mother like Tenny does, but she doesn’t understand what it is like to occupy a queer body).
One way that Tenny attempts to find this community is by using his upbringing, as the son of two archaeologists, to find that past. To call out homophobes who want to erase queer communities for their own conservative agendas. Tenny knows that archaeology can be this engine for promoting social good and for the project of building a queer community. This propels most of the plot, as Tenny reconnects with his father to find the Rings of the Sacred Band of Thebes, the rings that Ancient Greeks soldiers gave to each as an expression of love and bonding.
Rosen does a really nice job of getting at the nuances of what finding that queer community as a teenager is really like. Tenny has an archaeological mentor who is queer, and who is curating her own exhibit on queer history. Tenny also tries to explore what being a “good” queer person actually looks like. One of my favorite little jokes is that Tenny’s friend group call themselves the Good Upstanding Queers because they don’t create drama like those “other” queer kids. However, Tenny quickly discovers that by putting himself on a pedestal while denying himself so many wonders of the queer community in order to fit into a “straight-dominated” society, that he cannot fully explore who he is as a person. The book does a nice job of showing him explore casual dating, hooking up with someone you just met, and so much more.
In addition to all of the queer stuff, I have to champion Rosen’s exploration of ethics in archaeology. As much as an American archaeologist will tell you that they were inspired by Indiana Jones, the ethics in that franchise are not….great. Rosen deftly navigates the thorny situation of what we do with artifacts when we find them, and I love how he has Tenny consider all of the different groups of people who have an interest in the past. The Rings that Tenny and his father go after have special importance to the queer community, as an example of queerness in the past. But it also has great importance to Greece, and its history and heritage. And sometimes these two desires conflict. Rosen did a fantastic job of showing this.
Now, I could also talk about everything I didn’t like about the book, and I’ll quickly mention them here just because this is a review and this is what it’s here for. Most of my quibbles with the book probably come from the fact that I don’t read a lot of YA, and so I’m not used to the style and rhythm. I’ll just say that at times the teen angst and themes were pretty heavy-handed and repetitive. Ok, Tenny, we get it, you’re mad at your dad. Queer history is important. Your ex-boyfriend is bad. So, if these kinds of things really grate on you, this may not be the book for you.
I should also mention that while there are fantasy elements, these are mainly restricted to the beginning and end of the book. Magic is real in this universe, but it plays a relatively small role in the story.
But otherwise this is a propulsive and action heavy read that I flew through in a couple of hours.
This wasn’t the book that I would normally gravitate towards, but it was a book I never knew that I needed. This is a book I wish were on bookstores when I was fifteen, and I’m glad that books like this are becoming more common.
If you like things like Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider and want the queer version of that, this is the book for you. Rosen does a great job of crafting a fun and compelling read, while also injecting the book with nuanced conversations around the importance and ethics of the past. At times it becomes a bit ham-fisted, but the fast pace of the novel means that you fly by it all pretty quickly. The fantasy elements are light, but the adrenaline stays high.