No matter how hard we try to hide them, secrets nearly always come out in the end. Seventeen-year-old Jason Strummer learns as much in Heartless, this edgy debut by J. Roman. As well as following the ups and downs of a newly blossoming romance, it shows the horrific effects on a teenage boy of sexual abuse and his desperate struggle to conceal the truth from the outside world.

Jason is a bully. He has a spiteful putdown for anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, while his good looks and cocky attitude can get him any boy he wants … and he wants a lot of them. It’s common knowledge that he’s never seen with the same boyfriend for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Eventually, Jason’s disregard for the feelings of others catches up with him when he’s attacked by a discarded ex lover, and only the intervention of his arch enemy, Tommy Johnson, saves him.

Jason was in love with Tommy once, several years ago. In typical Jason fashion, however, he lashed out at Tommy in retaliation for some homophobic taunts, humiliating him in the worst way possible. Since then, the two boys have barely spoken. Yet, when Tommy steps in to rescue him, old feelings are stirred up and the beginnings of a fragile romance spark between them. What Jason doesn’t bargain on is that Tommy will quickly start to see through the callous exterior he wears in public and reveal the real person beneath. Before long he has to make a tough choice: let Tommy know the shocking truth about his home life or risk losing him for a second time.

I found Jason to be an intriguing character, who I both felt deeply sorry for and longed to shake some sense into, and Tommy’s patience in helping him rediscover his self-respect was immensely moving. There are some difficult issues covered in this novel—sexual abuse, bullying, self acceptance—but the author tackles them with sensitivity and compassion. The romance too has a nice balance of sweetness and angst, and with this being the first instalment in a four-part series, I anticipate a good deal more to come.

For anyone wanting a quick read that combines some tender moments with brutal realism, I would certainly recommend this book.

Reviewed for Rainbow Book Reviews

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