This book was an absolute pleasure to read. Having read–and in some cases, reread–just about everything by Santino Hassell (remaining reviews of which I hope to find the motivation for soon) and enjoying all of it, I was dabbling in some other writers’ offerings, but fiendin’ for something new by Hassell all the while. I hesitated picking this one up because–and don’t ask why–I’m a little wary of stories written by more than one person. Even if I find that it worked once, I don’t necessarily trust that it will work again. M/M in general is a sketchy wasteland, so I don’t think I can really be faulted for my hesitation. But mostly I passed over it several times because my interests weren’t all that piqued by the “cyberlove” theme, but sometimes you have to give into the addiction.
Compared to manga, I don’t read a lot of M/M novels, so to say Hassell is my favorite author in this genre is a bit much, but I do enjoy his stories and I’ve yet to be disappointed. He’s not perfect, but he certainly is close.
Hassell has partnered with Meg Erickson to write a series of stand alone stories tethered to the idea of relationships that begin online. Strong Signal is the first in the series and it’s a really strong start.
Garrett’s peon of an archer gets offed by Kai’s seriously leveled up orc mage in an online game. Garrett feels some kind of way about it and searches Kai out. What he finds ultimately leads him to Kai’s Twitch channel. He’s immediately struck by how striking Kai is, but still follows through with his plan to hassle and heckle him. After a while, though, Garrett becomes intrigued by Kai’s personality and his Twitch community and begins to waffle between acerbity & sarcasm and helpful gaming strategy. Up to this point, it was really one-sided, just Garrett throwing his words into the community chat, but when Garrett encounters some things about Kai unrelated to gaming elsewhere online, his protective nature comes out and he asks Kai if he’d be willing to talk to him outside of Twitch.
Kai, being himself intrigued by the guy, had already done his own brief investigation on Garrett. He’d obviously found his channel to harass him after such a jerk move, but never did anything outrageous enough to get banned and was actually helpful sometimes, but mostly quiet, so he was kind of freaked about this guy who turned out to be a deployed serviceman wanting to talk to him privately. Pushing his thoughts of homophobic harassment and psycho stalker aside, he agreed and sent him his email address. What he got in return was an email with a bit of confrontation about their first encounter, but mostly a heads up about what Garrett had found and his blatant concern for Kai’s safety. It was not even close to what Kai was expecting. In his response he thanked Garrett for the concern, but instead of dropping it there, he pushed things forward by asking a few questions. The first few exchanges were about gaming and Kai’s safety, but, from email to Gchat to Skype, it escalated to casual flirting, friendship, and then something more.
Garrett and Kai were really great characters who were easy to fall in love with. Gay and in their mid-twenties, but with lives that were completely different. Garrett was a stoic army guy from a small, economically crippled town in Pennsylvania where all of the people like him were closeted. His deceased father was a adulterer, a racist, and a homophobe and now he only had his mother and younger sister left and he couldn’t care less about anyone else. Kai, on the other hand, was alone in the world and suffered from social anxiety that eventually drove him to a solitary offline life which he all but replaced with one lived online, mostly through his gaming and gaming community. They were both cautious–particularly about things online–but where Garrett was gruff and expressionless and built a nearly impenetrable wall of distrust around himself, Kai was charming and vivid and seemed to have a certain amount of faith in and engaged well with his Twitch followers.
And when you put them together, you got this amazing dynamic. Garrett was insecure about himself and worried constantly about his life after his current tour in Afghanistan. Kai would listen to him and he was not shy about expressing his concern and encouraging him. And he went beyond reactionary care and let Garrett know that he was there for him for whatever experience he wanted to share. In return, or more like, in tandem, Kai’s social anxiety was injurious to his functioning as a human being and the extent of which caused him an immense amount of grief when he thought about how Garrett would see him if he knew. Before that aspect of his life was revealed, Garrett was straightforward and honest with Kai. He was also openly encouraging about Kai’s presence on Twitch even though they’d started off as rivals. And even though his growing feelings were somewhat in conflict with other aspects of Kai’s life, he was respectful of them when they came up in conversation.
However, after Garrett learned of Kai’s condition, he was still all of those things, but he also was, surprisingly understanding and compassionate. I say surprisingly because there was nothing in his story about him having experience with dealing with that kind of thing; though you’d assume that anyone with a societal disadvantage would be empathetic to others with one form or another, there is certainly someone out there that put the bi in bigot, if you know what I mean. And it wasn’t just that compassion-lite which is real, but reserved for concerns that are indirect circumstances. His ran so deep it was startling. Garrett was not content to say “there, there” and move on; he not only wanted to know when something was triggering, he wanted to understand why. That, to me, was even hotter than all of the amazing sex they had–oh-so amazing.
But not everything was wonderful. The story progresses through their development, but also through their lives apart from each other. Garrett’s enlistment and his life after which, in sorting out, brings strain to their relationship; their first encounter offline; how his protectiveness kind of goes to the extreme and occasionally jeopardizes Kai’s wellbeing instead. Kai’s acknowledgement of his anxiety, but his almost complete dismissal of the idea of truly facing how it has impaired his life and will, without a doubt, impair–and possibly wreck–his relationship with Garrett.
They were two people who were kind of in pieces, holding what they could together, trying to be there for each other, but still second guessing themselves and wondering how the other could love them nearly every step of the way. It was a struggle; a hot, sexy, sweet, hilarious, and great in every way struggle, but they made it to a believable happily ever after.
There are some minor continuity issues, like them grabbing a shopping basket on the way into the market, but it turning into a cart before they leave. Or like when they were wrestling around and, at one point Kai was on top of Garrett, but, within the span of 20 lines with no indication that they’d flipped, Garrett was on top. Then, the one that bothered me the most, but still somewhat minor is that when Garrett first saw Kai he thought he was young and he also called him “kid” during their first correspondences, but there’s no point at which Garrett acknowledges or realizes that he’s not a kid before he gets seriously turned on by and jerks off to him. With that I suppose you can just assume that it happened–the story’s not a minute by minute account of their lives–but I think, considering that it was clear that he assumed Kai was much younger than him, it should be made clear that he wasn’t having a pedo-moment.
But, beyond that and the cover–which I’m not so keen on–I loved this story and I’ve read it about five times in the three days I’ve had it. It’s less than 250 pages, but man if they don’t pack it cover to cover with everything worth your time.