Review: Teach the Torches to Burn: A Romeo & Juliet Remix by Caleb Roehrig

I received an ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Please note, I am one of those English majors who dispute that Romeo and Juliet was a tragic love story: it wasn’t. Even as a teenager I knew their choices were horrendous and their parents were awful. Teach the Torches to Burn: A Romeo and Juliet Remix takes the tragedy of teenagers desperate to escape their roles as pawns in their controlling parents’ chess game and turns their story into a magnificently satisfying wish fulfillment tale. The bones of Shakespeare are still there, holding up the overall structure of Romeo and Juliet’s story, but the substance is a lovely rewrite of character and circumstance, and turns Romeo’s tale into a true love story.

Romeo Montague, scion of one of the two most powerful families in Verona, Italy, is a woeful seventeen year old artist who wants nothing to do with the life laid before him. His parents, particularly his father, disapprove of his preference to draw and paint instead of working in the family business, and they are pushing for him to take a wife. Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Ben, in this book, which I thought fit the boy perfectly), is rather a scoundrel with the ladies and has been trying to get Romeo laid for years. Romeo, unable to express that he’s not interested in girls because he can’t quite bring into focus why he’s not interested, uses the fair Rosalind as his excuse. Conveniently, Rosalind has taken a vow of chastity, so she’s safe to admire from afar. Ben and their compatriot, Mercutio, drag Romeo to a costume ball at the Capulet villa to cause trouble, and here is where our scene changes.

Romeo does indeed meet Juliet at the Capulet masquerade, and they exchange quick wit and a communal sense of practicality. She thinks the families’ feud is ridiculous and has no interest in being chattel for her father to pawn off in exchange for political or monetary wealth. She chafes against her cage in ways Juliet in the original play did not, and it’s wonderful. Juliet here is feminist, clever, and brave.

Mercutio also matches much of his Shakespearean personality, being brash and fun and also protective of Romeo. And here’s where the story expands. Mercutio’s family had a tragic loss and fall from status years before, and his younger brother, Valentine, was sent to live with a distant relative. Valentine was thirteen when he left Verona, and Romeo didn’t remember him well. Now he’s back, and Romeo is utterly lovestruck. And that’s when the fights and deceptions and scheming truly start.

Caleb Roehrig expertly weaves Romeo and Valentine’s story through the big plot points of the original story. The twists that lead to crypts and poison feel true to Shakespeare even as they’re newly developed with expanded characters. While some of the reactions to Romeo and Valentine seemed a little too easy, the solution to Romeo, Juliet, and Valentine’s predicament is believable and satisfying.

Roehrig’s Teach the Torches to Burn is an excellent reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s a fun read full of action, adventure, and angst; a wonderful queer romance tale for young adults, Shakespeare fans, and anyone else who had their own ideas of how the tragedy should have ended.

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