This is what River McIntyre knows about who they are: They are a competitive swimmer. They were born and raised in Haley, Ohio, a town infamous for its failing marine park, SeaPlanet, and they feel a bitter kinship with the park’s captive-raised creatures. They have two parents and an older brother, and they’re Lebanese on their mom’s side. These are the facts River knows for certain.
River begins to realize that everything else is a lot more complicated after a run-in at SeaPlanet with Indigo Waits, an out and proud teenager from River’s past. Seeing Indy forces River to admit that they’ve been drowning under the tide of gender dysphoria and internalized homophobia for far too long. In the absence of the words to process their feelings, however, River jumps into SeaPlanet’s shark tank and sets off a chain of events that will forever link Indy’s and River’s lives.
In Man o’ War, author Cory McCarthy engages with every aspect of River’s life to create an extraordinary story with incredible depth. River’s experiences as a competitive swimmer enable McCarthy to explore the complex relationships that trans athletes have with their bodies, while River’s Arab American heritage raises discussions about biracial identity and passing in a world that’s prejudiced in favor of white, cisgender people.
McCarthy’s prose is suffused with emotion and often employs SeaPlanet’s sharks, orcas, Portuguese man-of-wars and other creatures as beautiful metaphors for River’s feelings. The jagged edges of dysphoria, the suffocating pressure of familial expectations and the all-encompassing need for love bleed through River’s internal monologue with biting clarity.
The novel’s exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process. River’s journey of self-discovery takes years, and Man o’ War follows them through high school and college. They try on different labels, experience both acceptance and rejection from their queer peers and navigate the joys and trials of medical transition. Along the way, McCarthy’s story provides space for every uncertain step, portraying River’s attempts to untangle the snarl of confusion and self-loathing inside themself with empathy and patience.
In Man o’ War, McCarthy validates how finding your name, accepting your name and telling others your name can all be separate, unique battles. Despite the pain those battles sometimes bring, River’s transition is driven by an irrepressible hope—a hope that will assure readers their true happiness is always worth the fight.