Bursting with charm, Future Leaders of Nowhere juggles themes of power, gender, sexuality, and – like any good YA – growing pains, all while maintaining sharp focus on the idiosyncratic and diverse cast of lovable characters. Set at a leadership camp for top-of-the-class high schoolers, the novel follows protagonists Finn and Willa as they lead groups of classmates in a forest survival test. Navigating a fabricated political system, lingering tensions from their outside lives, and the terrifying vulnerability of first love, Finn and Willa explore one another’s identities and their own, inviting the reader along for the ride.
With a cast consisting entirely of over-achievers, scholarship-earners and valedictorians, Future Leaders presents the unique task of exploring the challenges facing the kids who seem to have it all. Seemingly applauded by adults and effortlessly brilliant, the cast could have easily presented as privileged or perfect. However, O’Beirne’s characters are burdened with expectation, both academically and personally, as they juggle school, family, and work – all with little time to focus on what they truly want. Ambitious and over-achieving teens will surely identify with these challenges, which are often not taken seriously because they come with so much outer success. However, as Willa tells Finn in the novel, no one else’s struggles invalidate your own.
Although there’s much to love about Future Leaders (the group banter, the political relevance…) Finn and Willa’s romance steals the show. Sweet yet sincere and adorable yet complex, the couple’s relationship is built on balance and respect. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader gets to know the characters – who reveal little about their personal lives in the opening section of the novel – as they get to know one another, layers exposed inch by inch as their intimacy develops. Through Finn’s eyes, the “ice queen” Willa moves from mysterious to alluring to irresistible. And through Willa’s eyes, Finn inspires the best in others and pushes their the boundaries of the camp’s quasi-nation. O’Beirne’s depiction of the pair is romantic, passionate and gentle all at once, and she covers issues of sexuality, consent, and vulnerability with such grace and ease it seems effortless.
The sequel, All the Ways to Here, is due in November.