Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
“Valiente: Courage and Consequences” by A.G. Castillo is a solid book about an 18-year-old gay basketball player and his struggles with personal loss, his homosexuality, and being the best he can be in his sport despite numerous challenges such as injuries.
At the center of this book is the relationship between Chente, the main protagonist, and Doss, one of his high school coaches and love interest. How you feel about this pairing with inevitably affect the way you feel about the book. For us, the dynamics of a coach being romantically or sexually interested in one of their athletes, especially at the high school level, is very disturbing and troubling. Think about it: as a parent of a high school student, would you want a coach (or teacher) being romantically or sexually interested in them?
The book, at least, acknowledges the taboo nature of this pairing. We are constantly reminded that Coach Doss could lose his teaching certificate if news about his feelings and relationship get out. Also, it is a bit softened by the fact that both individuals in the pairing are technically adults: Chente is 18 and Doss is 22 or “21 and a half” as we are often reminded. It isn't technically ephebophelia, although it gets dangerously close. That actually does help to soften the blow. We've read several books with a similar dynamic, probably the most disturbing of which recently was “A Hundred Honeymoons” by J.S. Wilson, a book in which the two young characters, Todd and Sally, are constantly victimized by pedophiles, hebephiles, and ephebophiles including Sally by clients of her high school cheerleading coach, Mrs. V, and Todd by Miss Lady. “Valiente” is nothing close to that level of depravity.
Still, the dynamic does remain troublesome in the context of the immense sexual tension between the two leads. For example, Coach Doss has a strange habit of finding excuses to stretch and massage Chente. They also seem to run into each other in the shower quite a bit. Yes, it's consensual, and yes they're both technically adults, but again: this is a coach/teacher arguably molesting and leering at one of their players/students, whether if it's portrayed that way or not. We're constantly reminded by the author that Doss is “21 and a half” and that he is a “first-year teacher.” Those sentiments are repeated time and time again. However, as a loving parent, would you support or approve of this? We don't send our children to schools to gain this kind of inappropriate attention from adults.
Now, before anyone goes throwing homophobia accusations around, let's just say that if this were a heterosexual relationship, it would be even creepier. At least Chente, as a mature athletic male, is physically capable of resisting Doss if push came to shove. If this were a male coach showing interest in (and/or taking advantage of) a female player, this would be exponential less comfortable to read about.
If you are able to ignore the student-teacher dynamic of this relationship and just take it as one consenting adult forming a bond with another consenting adult, it can be quite captivating. The two obviously have a degree of chemistry from the very beginning of this book. They both definitely admire each other, not just on their looks (although we're immediately told what great legs Doss has), but on their charismatic and caring personalities.
And that brings us to next layer of the book: Chente, his loving personality, and his personal struggles with profound loss and sexuality. When we meet Chente, he has already lost his father and a close friend named Jimmy. Jimmy is said to have been driven to suicide. In Jimmy, we see what Chente could be. In a sense, Jimmy acts as Chente's foil: what could happen if he allows the slings and arrows of society and his personal demons to get to him. Will Chente give up and cease to be or will he persevere and fight on against the odds?
Chente is legitimately a good guy—if not a great guy—while being far from perfect. He's a three-dimensional character, something which we love to see. The book is clear that his homosexuality isn't the only thing that defines him, although it is still an aspect of him. He is also a great, hardworking athlete who fights through injuries and emotional traumas to not let his teammates and coaches down. He is a great friend who puts up with annoying friends like Haven, and was also there for Jimmy in his darkest hour. He is a good student who is in the running to be valedictorian of his class. And he even seems to maintain his faith and love for God despite some religious people being downright mean to him regarding his sexuality.
All in all, this can actually be a worthwhile read. It's actually well-written and well-presented. You even have beautiful graphics at the top of the pages showing Chente in a very humanizing and sympathetic light.
If you want a well-rounded LGBTQ+ story, then give this one a try!