Jack Martin’s life isn’t great right now. He’s being bullied at school by homophobes, lives with a parent who is at the end of her tether and hardly supportive, he’s full of talent but struggling to get by. Things change when Jack’s mum sends him away to San Francisco to live with his older brother. New city, new school, new people. Maybe all Jack needed was a fresh start?
Writer Owen Lach describes Jack’s on Fire as a “modern queer fairy tale”, but that doesn’t mean fairy godmothers and magical twists, instead Jack’s new world is very real, but also almost too good to be true. Accepted into a prestigious, artistic school, Jack has left the homophobic world behind to be embraced by a new, open society where it’s hard to tell if the cute boys are flirting or simply being friendly, and Jack’s musical skills bring him into the celebrity sphere.
This abundance of goodness doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing for Jack. High school is still high school and being a midterm transfer he has some catching up to do. A handsome jock tutor named Damon certainly doesn’t hurt, but is the school hero really into Jack, or is it all just wishful thinking? Jack may be in a better place but he’s still dealing with the experiences that led him here (being outed by his closeted, religious ex, being bullied and effectively abandoned by his mother). He’s got some healing to do before he can leap into this new reality.
Don’t come to Jack’s on Fire looking for big dramatic swings, there aren’t any. This is a gentle, sweet read. Most of the drama is internal and the story moves at a gradual pace. Things generally go Jack’s way. On landing in San Francisco he manages to score a hot tutor, be universally praised for his music, get a job and get an introduction to his favourite band within a few days. This really is a fairy tale. But just like any teenager, Jack can turn a molehill into a mountain by over-analyzing things.
The relative lack of dramatic stakes and languid pace make Jack’s on Fire a slow burn, and that will divide some readers I’m sure. You’ll either love taking your time with these characters, or struggle to feel the urgency to read on. Lach takes time to spell things out and clarify moments. No micro-aggression goes uncommented on, from the mispronunciation of his surname (pronounced as the Hispanic ‘Mar-teen’, not the Anglicized ‘Mar-tin’) to the use, or lack of, personal pronouns in introductions, to the point where it can start to feel like a lecture. This idealized setting can pull you out of the reality of the emotions at times. Thankfully the characters are so damn nice to be around that you’ll forgive the moments of exposition.
Jack’s On Fire is a charming “hang out” novel set in an idealized world. Light on plot, but filled with lovely characters you’d like to meet in real life. If you like Jack, you’ll love spending time with this book. In a YA queer romance market filled with variations on a theme (blame Red, White & Royal Blue for half of them) Jack’s On Fire bucks the trend to go warm and lo-fi.
By Chad Armstrong
Jack’s On Fire is published on September 27th 2022. Pre-order now from your local independent bookstore. Thanks to Netgalley and Jetspace Studio for the advance review copy.