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BookBrowse Reviews Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley

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Tonight We Rule the World

by Zack Smedley

Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley X
Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2023, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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Tonight We Rule the World is a powerful look at navigating trauma on your own terms.

At 17, Owen feels like his life is finally on track. As he struggled to socialize and form connections due to autism, much of his childhood was spent isolated. So it meant everything to him to find a supportive girlfriend in Lily, and to be welcomed into her tight-knit group of friends. Now, on the cusp of adulthood and preparing to head out into the world, the confidence he has spent years crafting is shattered when he is sexually assaulted during a visit to a prospective university. After the crime is anonymously reported to his school, faculty bureaucrats and his no-nonsense military father are soon at loggerheads – the former hoping to handle things discreetly, and the latter seeking retribution. But Owen's greatest fear is that word will reach Lily, forcing them both to confront uncomfortable truths about their relationship that could derail his whole life.

Owen is a fantastically well-realized character. The attempts to address his identity as a bisexual on the autism spectrum as well as his navigation of the aftermath of sexual assault could have given the impression that the author was trying to take on too many complex issues. However, Smedley allows ample breathing space for each of these threads within the narrative, ensuring they feel organic and earned. As a result, a diverse range of readers will be able to see sensitive portrayals of their lived experiences – particularly important given the book's target young adult audience. Refusing to let his hero be defined by any one thing, Smedley has crafted a complex protagonist so believable that it's impossible not to feel the gut-punch of his failures and the rush of his success.

The structure also serves to help us better empathize with Owen's plight. Split into a dual timeline, the book includes present-day sections that commence from the moment news of his attack reaches the school, with his journal entries taking us back through the years leading up to the incident. By emphasizing just how much he has already had to overcome to find happiness, and how much he has come to rely on the existing dynamic among his friends, his fear of speaking out – and upending everything he knows – takes on even greater poignancy.

With the situation becoming increasingly complicated, the novel delves into issues as wide-ranging as loyalty, abuse, gender, PTSD, gaslighting, sexuality, toxic masculinity and warped plays for power. It's a tangled web, but the narrative never feels bloated, and Owen remains the lynchpin that holds everything together. It's also important to note that despite the many heavy themes at play, Owen's beautiful friendships and blossoming sense of self provide scope for moments of joy. In a lot of ways, this is also a novel about the time in our lives during which — for many of us — our friends serve as found family, and the bittersweetness of having to forge one's own path.

Given the many layers involved and the ongoing process that typifies recovery, a tidy happily-ever-after may have felt contrived. Thankfully, Smedley pitches his climax perfectly, offering enough closure to leave readers hopeful about Owen's future without undermining the reality of his emotional journey.

Older readers who think they'll fail to connect with young adult fiction need not worry. The level of emotional turmoil, moral complexity and pin-sharp focus on character employed by Smedley make this the kind of YA that can and should be picked up by people of all ages, its vital messages transcending any potential barriers of category or genre.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2021, and has been updated for the May 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Read-Alikes

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