This book was an unusual choice for me- it’s a genre (m/m romance) I don’t read often, about a subject I don’t really get involved in- tabletop gaming. I bought it because it was on sale, and the email from the publishing company intrigued me. I read it as an E-book. The main characters are college age, in some ways this is a New Adult book.
The book uses alternating chapters from the point of view of the two main characters- a device that seems to have become increasingly popular, particularly in New Adult books. In this case it works quite well, especially as the author doesn’t rely on the POV chapters to infodump the information needed to be invested in the story. The character’ internal thoughts hint at issues, but the causes have to wait until their conversations with each other.
The protagonists are Conrad, a charismatic and popular college student, and Alden, a brilliant but introspective grad student- it’s indicated he has some issues interacting socially, but also that a specific diagnosis has never been attached. The two are part of a regular gaming group that also posts videos of their gaming session on YouTube. Their gimmick is that the group is coordinated by an old professor- the show is “Gaming Grandpa”. Conrad and Alden have a prickly relationship to begin with. All of the participants of the group are students at the college.
The professor announces at the last gaming session before summer break that he has scored them free passes to the big convention for the game they play (its a fictional game), which include entry to the tournament. Winning the tournament would solve problems for each of the protagonists, for different reasons, but both face difficulty in how to get there. The winner of the tournament receives a significant payment, plus the opportunity to join the pro circuit for the game.
Conrad is struggling financially and has been helped by some of the faculty to survive. He is unsure if he can afford to stay at college. He definitely cannot afford tickets from the college town to Las Vegas, where the con is. Alden has just failed to get in to medical school for the second time and is being hassled by his professorial moms as to his future plans. He has residual trauma from the death of his father in a plane crash and has severe anxiety about flying.
Both have challenges in relation to their future life plans and see winning the tournament as an opportunity to turn this around. The background to their challenges and solutions to their problems form part of the story and the resolution. I liked that the causes of their challenges were not necessarily explained upfront and were disclosed as the story progressed and the friendship grew, so I am not going into detail about them here.
The professor knows the challenges facing the heroes, and has a solution that doesn’t expose anyone’s secrets. A road trip in his behemoth car, stopping at game shops en route to play demonstration games and drop off signed copies of his book. The road trip will also include the other members of the group: Jasper and Payton. Payton appears to be non-binary, preferred pronoun “they/them”. Payton has money and prefers to fly, but the other three agree to the road trip.
Through a series of events the professor is unable to go, but insists they continue as planned. Then, early in the trip, Jasper has an emergency and has to go home. Both of these events allow the heroes to demonstrate unexpected personal traits to the other.
The two heroes find each other attractive, but think the other dislikes them. They have quite different personalities and coping techniques. How and why they play the game is also a good interaction point.
As they travel across the USA and cope with various challenges, their relationship grows. Lots of kissing and touching, but limited sexual encounters. The description of these is heavy on the feelings and very light on the physical- which was a pleasant change from standard romance. I don’t think it’s a spoiler that they are a couple- it’s in the title.
A lot of the story is about adapting, changing and moving out of the comfort zone- for both of them, in different ways.
A challenge of trust at the end and a nice Happy For Now resolution- not quite the resolution I was expecting, but still a good one.
Three out of five stars for me- it was a pleasant, fun read and I enjoyed it. The descriptions of the game were intriguing.
There is a sequel, starring Jasper, but it’s not out yet and the pre-order is a bit eye watering.