I’ll Never Let You Go Again
Leorino Cassieux is the fourth and much-cherished son of a margrave in the kingdom of Fanoren. But this angelically beautiful boy with violet eyes has inherited the memories of Ionia, the dead beloved of the king’s younger brother, Prince Gravis. Ionia, a knight, died defending his country in a violent insurrection, yet the man who killed him is still alive – and now he has his sights set on Leorino. Twelve years later, a ceremony commemorating the event is held at Zweilink – and Leorino’s life is suddenly in grave danger. In desperation, the boy calls out to the prince to save him, using the name that only Ionia used to use.
Yet after this brief traumatic encounter, it will be six years before they meet again. And in that time, the nobles have been continuing to scheme for power and influence. But when an arrogant noble makes a pass at Leorino, the young man can’t help but cry out for Gravis – and Gravis hears, hurrying to his rescue. Now that they’ve met again, will the bond between dead Ionia and Gravis be reforged? And what of Lucas, who once was Ionia’s lover – and is now a lieutenant general in the Royal Army? Has he realized that Leorino carries Ionia’s memories?
Volume 1 of You Can Have My Back by Minami Kotsuna was placed fourth in the 2021 Chil-Chil Boys’ Love Awards for Best BL Novel in Japan and subsequent volumes have fared even better. It has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen in a very long time; cover artist Hitomi Hitoyo also provides the attractive illustrations in the text. But only a few chapters in to this chunky tome (455 pages!!) I found myself baffled. Why was the text so difficult to read? What on earth was going on with the plot? Why does the author constantly tell us that young hero Leorino is ‘beautiful’ and ‘angelic’ and has violet eyes? We get the message! I am aware that this repetitious technique is a problem with light novels for some reason (a hangover from self-publishing as webnovels on the internet?) or maybe a different approach to writing styles, but it makes the text look like an unedited first draft.
One piece of advice given to fiction writers is ‘show, don’t tell’ and unfortunately this novel often does nothing but tell. There are pages and pages of exposition which could – with some writerly skill – have been slipped into the narrative when and only when relevant to the events taking place. Then there are the viewpoint characters. The viewpoint hops around, often many times within a chapter. Sometimes we’re in a kind of omniscient authorial view that allows us to know what various characters are thinking, sometimes we’re in Leorino’s head. But when young Leo starts having dreams/flashbacks to his previous life as Ionia, it’s all over the place. Luckily, the author eventually adopts the practice of naming and numbering the chapters told from Ionia’s point of view and set in the past before Leorino’s birth, so this awkward Leo/Ionia mash-up is mostly abandoned. The skill in writing fiction using flashbacks is to weave the important reveals into the story at relevant moments. And why is the Prologue a hot and heavy non-con sex scene between Leorino and an older unnamed man whom we eventually assume to be Gravis, only for the story proper to start with a long info dump on the family history of Leorino, commencing before his birth and then laboriously taking us through his early years?
Then there’s the fantasy element. It’s not at all obvious from the get-go that this novel is a fantasy, even allowing for the underlying theme of reincarnation or inherited memories. So when it’s suddenly mentioned that Leorino’s mother Maia has Powers, this seems something of a ‘having your cake and eating it’ as the set-up has not hinted at anyone having a Power of any kind until then. Suddenly, all kinds of people have them and use them, as if the author thought it would be a good way to solve troublesome plot issues but forgot to go back and establish them as an accepted part of this world. As I’ve been professionally involved with SFF fiction for many years, I found this aspect particularly perplexing.
Also, in a pseudo-European (medieval? Renaissance?) society which seems not to possess any of the trappings of our contemporary world such as horseless carriages, steam engines etc. we’re suddenly told that same-sex marriage is perfectly acceptable – but as a kind of afterthought, without context in the greater scheme of things. As with the Powers, if this had introduced as part of the societal set-up much earlier on, rather than just suddenly being mentioned quite a way into the story, it would have been much more convincing.
Last but not least, there’s the elephant in the room: this is a Boys’ Love novel. Leorino is a central figure with practically no agency. He’s constantly described as feminine and small, he’s dressed as a girl when he’s a child by his doting mother, he’s physically weak and, due to injuries, unable to run away when cornered by evil men who want to have their wicked way with him. He cries a lot too. Oh – and because he’s inherited Ionia’s memories, he’s also Ionia, only he isn’t. So, trigger warnings for some non-consensual sexual encounters (Ionia was in a physical relationship with Lucas Brandt as well as falling for Prince Gravis/‘Vi’) and some less than erotic scenes of a sexual nature due to awkward authorial word choices. If you’re uncomfortable with big age differences too, then this is not the novel for you: Gravis is (and the author constantly reminds us) a man by the time he meets Leorino (there’s a nineteen-year age gap). Leorino is even referred to as ‘princess’ occasionally and his appearance (small head, pale face, slender frame etc.) is, I suspect, meant to allow, nay encourage female-identifying readers to identify with him. This plays into an aspect of Boys’ Love that I’d hoped we’d progressed beyond: the girlish uke.
What is my main problem with this rambling narrative? Well, it would probably be judged as ‘all right’ if submitted by a very young (or inexperienced) writer, possibly still in school. This kind of random ‘putting ideas down as they occur’ technique of writing is first-draft stuff at best and needs editing. It’s fine for sharing with your classmates (been there, done it back in the day) but not ready for a wider audience because it needs shaping and editing to present the characters and their story in the best possible way.
Then there’s the layout in the physical edition. The Yen On paperback is printed in very small font – although this doesn’t matter if you’re reading it in the digital version – and the text uses double spacing between paragraphs sometimes for no obvious reason. In a work with confusing changes of viewpoint, it doesn’t seem to relate to making it clear when points of view are changing; again, this odd spacing is much less of a problem in the digital version.
I spent a little time reading Japanese readers’ enthusiastic 5* comments, puzzled because they didn’t match up to my impressions of the novel in translation. So, could it be the translation? I’m not familiar with the work of Aleksandra Jankowska, having only this novel to assess – but having checked out her manga translations for Animate International, I thought they were absolutely fine, so I can only assume it’s the source material.
I’m not a huge fan of light novels. I was intrigued by the premise of You Can Have My Back because I’m a sucker for reincarnation stories and I was seduced by the lovely cover art. However, I’ve recently enjoyed reading light novels as varied as Sabikui Bisco, The Case Files of Jeweler Richard and The Raven Consort, so it’s not that I dislike them in general. I just struggled to get anywhere with this one. Perhaps the second volume (due out from Yen On in November) will be an improvement on the first.
Our review copy from Yen Press was supplied by Diamond Book Distributors UK.