Non Pratt wrote another novel!!!
It has a gimmick that throws me back to the ’90s, but it’s fully a novel of the 2010s, fuelled as it is by the spectator society of YouTube eyeballs and the intricate liminal spaces teenagers negotiate between their online and offline identities.
It also has an aromantic and asexual character. I’m probably going to talk more about this than about the main plot of the novel, because hey, you can go ahead and read reviews from allo people about that.
Truth or Dare follows Claire Casey and Sef Malik, two UK teenagers who don’t know each other very well or have much in common until authorial intent throws them in one another’s path. Claire kind of volunteers to help Sef raise money for his older brother, who needs care after a traumatic brain injury, and together they become “Truth Girl and Dare Boy”. But launching a YouTube channel is easy—turning views into donations, they discover, is very hard. With time running out, Sef pushes Claire towards more and more outrageous dares. She is falling for him, but she has to consider where she draws the line.
The first half of Truth or Dare is from Claire’s perspective. She’s a very interesting, sympathetic protagonist, in my opinion. There are so many Claires in this book, and her constant struggle to understand how she defines herself is emblematic of adolescence in general. There’s the Claire who is best friends with Seren and Rich, and who is totally blindsided by the latter’s awkward and inappropriate advances to the former, who is ace and aro (!!!). There’s the Claire who is kind and caring, as seen in her scenes with Kam. There’s “Milk Tits”—the victim of bullying after a nip-slip video goes viral within the school community. And then there’s “Truth Girl”, who if anything seems to be an attempt by Claire to create an online persona that opposes what Milk Tits stands for.
This is what I love about Pratt’s work. It’s not so much the storytelling—when you get down to it, Truth or Dare is actually kind of trite in its plot—as it is the way Pratt executes characterization like it’s going out of style. Pratt doesn’t just write teenagers: she shows us all the turning cogs of their minds, and reminds us of what it’s like to think and feel at that age, the priorities and weight of all the relationships and hormones and expectations.
Speaking of hormones, the sexytimes definitely happen here, but they are rather low-key. I like how Pratt acknowledges that it is a thing but doesn’t foreground it. There’s so much else that’s going on, and it’s nice to see a take on teenage sexuality that isn’t “ZOMG AND THEN THEY SEXED.”
Claire’s relationships with her friends are dynamic and fascinating. This is where I’m going to fanboy squee a lot about Pratt’s portrayal of Seren, Claire’s best friend:
Girls, boys, whatever, Seren just isn’t interested. She’s asexual and pretty political about it—Seren’s campaigning is a reason West Bridge has such comprehensive LGBTQ+ lessons in PSHE.
That’s from page 32 of the book. I did a doubletake and re-read that paragraph, because it came out of the blue. It’s not a good thing, of course, that we are so starved for asexual representation that we are incredulous when it actually shows up. But there it is: on the page, acknowledging asexuality as part of the LGBTQIAP+. Moreover, the phrasing here makes it clear that Seren, at 16 or 17 years old, is aware of and confident in her asexuality: it isn’t just “a phase” and she isn’t just discovering it. She is out and proud to her friends and community.
Of course, it remained to be seen whether or not Pratt would differentiate between being asexual and aromantic (plenty of asexual people develop romantic feelings and enter into romantic relationships!).
And she does not let me down:
“He knows—you both do. It’s not like that for me. I’m ace and I’m aro and … I don’t … ugh!”
That’s Seren, venting her frustration and “nauseated” feelings after Rich confesses his feelings for her. So Seren is definitely aro in addition to being ace, totally uninterested in Rich, and seems to be sex-repulsed too. Pratt goes on to hang a lampshade on the fact that asexuality and aromanticism are invisible in our society while educating the reader on these terms:
Until Seren told us she was asexual, I didn’t know you could come out as anything other than gay or bi and I’m not always up on the terms she uses. I spend a lot less time on Tumblr than Seren does.
“What does aro mean again?”
“Aromantic. No interest in romance. As in, zero interest in having a relationship beyond the platonic variety and certainly not wanting to be accosted on my own doorstep.”
Not only is this mostly accurate* and educational, but it’s also done entirely in Seren’s voice, with that little bit of acerbic humour we come to recognize in her conversations with Rich and Claire.
I think it’s worth pointing out two things at this juncture. Firstly, I am but one aro/ace reader of this book. Other aro-spec and ace-spec readers might not be as enthusiastic as me about the representation here, and that’s totally fair. Secondly, “aromantic” isn’t actually “no interest” in romance. This accurately describes how I experience and use aromanticism as an identity. More broadly speaking, though, aromanticism is a lack of romantic attraction. One can be aromantic and still want or be in a romantic relationship, just like one can be asexual and still want or be in a sexual relationship. Generally speaking, though, I feel like Pratt makes an honest effort to represent an aro/ace character whose experience so far is not having any interest in romance, and that is definitely valid—just not universal.
So instead of your run-of-the-mill awkward-unrequited-love subplot between Claire’s two best friends, Pratt chooses to put in some aro/ace representation and create a much more interesting story as a result. While the main plot of Truth or Dare continues, we also see a gulf open up among these three. It develops very naturally and interestingly, and I enjoyed it all the way until its resolution.
I don’t want to fall all over myself with gratitude here, because this should just be normal and unremarkable. Asexual and arospec people deserve representation on page as much as any other group. But since it is remarkable, I needed to remark on it. I had no idea one of my favourite authors had this in store for me when I started Truth or Dare; reader, I swooned. One thousand and one platonic hearts. (The digital kind; there’s no way I’m actually cutting out 1001 hearts, even tiny ones, from paper. And harvesting real hearts would be … messy. And probably unwelcome. But I digress.)
There’s also a great deal of good stuff about consent in Truth or Dare. Obviously in the above side-plot there’s discussion of consent around asexuality, and the fact that Rich’s advances aren’t just awkward but inappropriate given his awareness of Seren’s orientation. Pratt also addresses the lack of consent involved in the Milk Tits video and the subsequent actions of its perpetrator. Finally, there’s a moment where Claire wants to hug the neuro-disabled Kam, but before she does, she asks him for consent. It’s easy to forget to ask for consent when hugging people, but it’s important, particularly when interacting with people who have cognitive or motor disabilities and may not be able to express their discomfort with such actions.
Jump cut to a quick review of the second half of the book!
I wish you could flip over this review like you must Truth or Dare’s hard copy version in order to continue reading … that brought back such nostalgia for some of the kids’ books I read in the 1990s.
The story continues, after quite the cliffhanger, with Sef’s perspective. We play catch-up at first, seeing some of the events Claire was not witness to leading up to the start of the main story, with flashbacks interspersed as the plot continues. To be honest, I don’t quite identify as much with Sef as I ended up identifying with Claire. I don’t think this is a problem with his characterization so much as the choice to put him as second narrator: by the time we hear his voice, the adrenaline and pacing are so high, so fast, that we don’t have the time or luxury to get to know him quite as well. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Pratt gives us this opportunity. Particularly interesting are some of the scenes we already saw from Claire’s point of view that she then retells from Sef’s.
Remix is probably still my favourite of Pratt’s novels so far. But that’s another thing I like about Non Pratt: each of her books keeps proving to be something new and unique and wonderful in a different way. Her voice and passion remain consistent and authentic; her motifs and themes are often similar; but each work has different tones and tenors that make it special. There’s a lot to love about Truth or Dare, and I can’t recommend enough all of Pratt’s books.
Full disclosure: One time I knit a scarf and hat for Non Pratt because she complained on Twitter she didn’t own any Gryffindor clothing. She does now.