For many young queer people, life beyond “the now” exists only in the imagination. Imagine: a home where I'm loved. Imagine: feeling safe. Imagine: living on my own terms. Lio Min's debut YA novel, Beating Heart Baby, is a story of high school band geeks, internet friends turned IRL besties and what it's like when the life you imagined becomes a reality.
Santiago Arboleda is overwhelmed the first time he arrives at his new high school in Los Angeles. The other students are way more outgoing than kids were at his old school, and they're relentless about not letting Santi fade into the scenery. The Sunshowers marching band is also one of the best in California, so Santi has a lot of catching up to do—a fact that Suwa, a musical prodigy and trumpet section leader, makes abundantly clear. When Santi realizes that Suwa is transgender, Suwa becomes even more antagonistic. Miscommunication, pride and swirling hormones act like magnets between the two as Santi works to prove that he deserves his place in the Sunshowers.
Meanwhile, Santi is also dealing with the ghost of a soured internet relationship with someone he knows only as Memo. The pair connected online over anime, music and queerness, but when Santi accidentally leaked a song Memo composed and it became a viral sensation, Memo lashed out and disappeared. Clues emerge about Memo's real identity, but the search takes second chair to Santi's growing sense of a found family with the Sunshowers—and an emerging romance between Santi and Suwa.
That's only scratching the surface of this remarkable novel, which is filled to the brim with reflections on the music industry, generational trauma, food, sex, anime and all manner of heartbreak and love. Min's exploration of coming out and owning your story as an artist is particularly exhilarating and nuanced.
Much of the book's vernacular and aesthetic is informed by Min's background as a seasoned music journalist with experience interviewing such acts as Japanese Breakfast, Mitski (who is quoted in the book) and Christine and the Queens. Like the music of these badass queer rock ‘n' roll stars, Beating Heart Baby aches for a softer world. It's an epic tale of queer validation, filtered through the light of the California sun and Sailor Moon, and an essential read for anyone searching for a blueprint of their soul.