Gay mystery finds an earnest YA voice in Josh Aterovis’s enjoyably homocentric detective novel A Change of Worlds. It’s his fifth and latest book in the Killian Kendall series, which was recently re-released by MLR Press. I hadn’t read the early installments and found the story newcomer-friendly.
Eighteen-year-old Killian is the book’s teen sleuth and forthright storyteller. He’s a likeable young man who just finished his freshman year of college and is working for a private detective in a small town in coastal Maryland. He’s something of a crime-solving prodigy, having saved the day on a local murder case, which is hinted at though not necessary to fully understand in order to follow along.
As such, the story has a Hardy Boys feel and a requisite suspension of disbelief at times. Taken as a salute to that genre, reclaimed for fans of gay YA, A Change of Worlds provides a comfy ride through mystery intrigue and the contemporary trials and triumphs of young gay men.
Those issues of young adulthood share the stage at least equally with the detective work at hand. Killian’s painful backstory and unique living situation is presented early on. He was thrown out of his home by his homophobic father and happily taken in by a gay couple who own a bed-and-breakfast. They’re named Adam and Steve, with full intentionality I suspect, and they’ve become caretakers and ombudsmen to gay teens rejected by their families.
The theme of found families/chosen families permeates Killian’s world. One of his tasks is to help a formerly homeless boy Tad adjust to living under Adam and Steve’s guardianship, to do his part around the house, and stay on the path of recovery from his traumatic past. Killian’s client Fletcher is a gay Native man who raised his gay niece and grandson due to the lack of acceptance of their families.
The mystery concerns an archeological dig on Fletcher’s wooded property to discover and preserve Native artifacts. When Fletcher is called out of bed by the voices of his ancestors to check on the site, he is assaulted by an assailant he never sees. Killian gets retained to find Fletcher’s attacker, who also may be looting the dig overnight. He has a cast of suspects among the archeological team, local artifact collectors, and members of the Native tribe who have mixed views about the goals of the non-Native academics leading the project.
There’s quite a lot to unpack with the premise, and Aterovis takes a thoughtful approach by considering issues of positionality and intersectionality. The tribe’s elder council is rightfully wary of the exploitation of their cultural history while some members of the archeological crew are tone deaf to that concern, adamant about the virtue of accumulating knowledge even when their dig reveals they have uncovered a sacred burial site. Meanwhile, differences in sexuality within the tribe create distrust and tension as well as pure blood versus mixed race characters. Killian stands aside as an observer while these conflicts play out not merely to be objective but to learn.
Woven through the mystery storyline, Killian must decide whether to take the big step of moving in with his boyfriend Micah or to let the relationship go so Micah can pursue a job in New York City. The appearance of Killian’s ex Asher complicates that decision, and without giving too much away, Aterovis depicts that young adult drama with restraint and a circumspect resolution.
Killian undertakes a variety of interviews and surveys of the archeological site to try to figure out who’s stealing artifacts, and then key figures are murdered, amping up the stakes of his investigation. As a detective procedural, the story is a slow burn, with lots of dead ends and detours while Killian wrestles with his romantic life and acts the part of older brother to Adam and Steve’s two younger boys. And there’s a paranormal awakening storyline. I found each of those threads to be well-crafted, but it may be quite a lot for readers looking for a fast-paced crime thriller. The book clocks in at 140,000 words.
Still, a charming teen detective novel with a refreshing focus on gay situations and Native communities.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters