Reviews /

King of Nothing

Authored by Nathanael Lessore
Published by Hot Key Books

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King of Nothing is Nathanael Lessore’s equally hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to the Carnegie, Jhalak, Branford Boase and UKLA-shortlisted Steady for This. Lessore’s second novel is narrated by Anton, a Year 9 boy who starts out as self-proclaimed ‘king of the school’ but ultimately decides to reject the hollow crown of status and toxic masculinity.

Anton lives with his mother and grandmother. His father is in prison, which has helped to earn him the respect of his fellow ‘mandem’ Caleb, Marcus and Kehinde. Anton’s position at the top of the school hierarchy seems unassailable, but when he gets into trouble one too many times, his mother decides to enlist him in a project to renovate a women’s refuge with a youth group called the Happy Campers (who greet each other by shouting ‘Toot-toot!’ and ‘Hoot-hoot!’) There he is paired up with his classmate and social pariah, Matthew – who spends his lunchtimes painting little figurines and utters phrases like ‘Oh my goody gosh’ – and even finds himself going on a weekend camping trip. If word gets out then Anton’s reputation will be in tatters. However, the more time Anton spends with Matthew, the more he questions his assumptions about friendship and what is truly important in life.

While there is a reassuring predictability about the odd-couple plot at the heart of this story, Lessore uses it to explore serious and hard-hitting issues, particularly misogynistic attitudes towards women and girls. In the age of ‘alpha male’ influencers like Andrew Tate, it is great to see a male writer tackling these corrosive views through the eyes of a teenage boy who is exposed to them but feels increasingly uncomfortable and comes to embrace a different set of values. While Anton’s father and Kehinde (who obsessively listens to ‘angry podcasts’ of the sort produced by Tate and others) have one set of views on how to treat women, Lessore provides Anton with lots of positive role models: not only his mother, grandmother and teachers, but also gender equality specialist Joshua Nikon who becomes something of a mentor to Anton.

More generally, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story about being exposed to different world views and deciding what sort of person you want to be. At times, Anton feels trapped by his current friendships, but perhaps the most important message of the novel is that ‘people who want to change can change’ – and that being prepared to do so can bring one true happiness. As Anton’s mother observes, life is so short, a simple amalgamation of the choices we make. If you’re lucky enough to experience a single moment of joy, […] then those are the moments to hold on to’. Quite apart from realising that Matthew is much kinder than Kehinde, Anton also realises he has a lot more fun when he is with Matthew.

Like Steady for This, this is an incredibly funny book. The jokes begin on the very first page, as Anton tells us that ‘if someone starts something I’ll be the one to finish it, unless it’s a marathon or a salad’, and they come thick and fast through the following chapters: camping is ‘for people in Dulwich who want to feel poor‘; Matthew ‘floats like a butterfly and stings like a marshmallow’; and Anton’s mother’s punishment of choice is to change the Wi-Fi password to things like ‘AntonLuvsMummyWummy123’. Along with Lessore’s outstanding gags and wordplay, there are some deliciously cringeworthy moments of embarrassment which readers will love to squirm along with. As well as adding to the enjoyment of reading this novel, the use of humour makes it an unthreatening way of approaching heavier topics.

This is a must-read for KS3; it could make a delightful class reader in Year 8 or 9, or perhaps even better a tutor-time read, allowing for rich discussions around friendship, family and gender equality, with plenty of laughs along the way.