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The First Move

Authored by Jenny Ireland
Published by Penguin Random House Children's UK

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The First Move is a teenage love story with some interesting protagonists at its heart. The game of chess is significant to both Ronan and Juliet, and symbolism surrounding the strategic board game abounds.

Ronan and Juliet meet online through a chess website. Anonymous, they can ‘chat’ freely through matches as ‘A LONELY PAWN’ and ‘PRETTY BASIC’, shielded by their online avatars. Dual-narrated by the pair of star-crossed lovers, the novel’s chapters alternate perspectives in first person. They imagine themselves to be far apart, perhaps on the other side of the globe from one another. Little do they realise the truth: they actually sit side by side in an English class at the same school in Northern Ireland. In their day-to-day lives they seem far less compatible since the course of true love never did run smooth.

In the English lessons Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is part of the programme of study. The reader is invited to draw light parallels between the texts; firstly, in the lack of awareness of their real names, but also in the misunderstandings that beset the pair. It is no coincidence that the character names are not dissimilar from Shakespeare’s eponymous tragic heroes.

New-to-the-school Ronan has a troubled past that he isn’t ready to share. Juliet has a form of inflammatory arthritis which means that she has to learn to use crutches at school. They are both outsiders. There are also private tragedies playing out for all the main characters. The supporting cast of Juliet’s friends each have their own crosses to bear.

The author, Jenny Ireland, has chosen to put a character living with a disability (under-represented in YA fiction), at the centre of her debut novel. Ireland was herself diagnosed with a similar condition to Juliet when she was 23. Her experiences lend authenticity to Juliet’s in the narrative.

This is a very knowing romantic comedy. Ireland is keen to acknowledge and play with the tropes of the genre, well aware of the clichés and pitfalls it affords. From the very first line Juliet is cynical about love, believing that all teen movies should come with a disclaimer that ‘real life is nothing like this. Teenagers who enjoy reading tales about the trials and tribulations of relationships will appreciate this classic love story with a contemporary twist.

Longlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2024