What Janine is Reading: Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series, Part I
Earlier in the year I read (or in one case, tried to read) the first three books in Rachel Reid’s m/m contemporary romance series, Game Changers, which follows queer NHL players as they fall in love and have to deal with the conflict presented by the heteronormative culture of the NHL and its fandom. I would label the first two books erotic romances, but not the third. Although my response to the books was decidedly mixed (as you’ll see if you keep reading) I plan to continue the series to follow one of the couples. I hope to write up a Part II post when I’ve caught up on the next three books.
Cute guy (Kip) meets famous hockey player (Scott) at the former’s workplace, a New York City smoothie shop. Attraction blossoms and they end up jumping each other’s bones. Scott hasn’t had a lot of experience in dating or sex because as a hockey player he has to hide his queerness. To continue the relationship, Kip will have to accept being a secret because his boyfriend can never come out.
This book was flimsy at best. Kip and Scott were likable but they go from instalust to hot sex to dating very fast. They have literally not held a meaningful personal conversation more than a few sentences long when Scott asks Kip to date him in secret. For Scott this is a huge risk to take; he could be outed if they are seen together more than once or twice. He hardly knows Kip when he shares his secret with him so he has no way to know that Kip will keep it.
Additionally, Kip is a sweet guy but they have nothing in common other than being gay and the hot sex so this didn’t compute for me either. Why Kip specifically, since there is nothing in common there? Kip is good looking but so what? Scott can have his pick of hot men. Kip wasn’t even interested in hockey before he and Scott met.
Scott is almost a virgin, so the absence of an answer to this question makes it seem like his head is turned by the first attractive man he’s flirted and had sex with. But he’d exerted a lot of willpower to avoid precisely this kind of risky situation, so this also doesn’t jibe.
The income disparity between them is the other main conflict, but it just made me uncomfortable and was another area where they lacked commonality.
This was one of the emptiest, flimsiest books I have read in years and I put it down unfinished at 51%. DNF.
Book two in the series, on the other hand, was much better. Shane and Ilya are two young hockey rising stars with NHL aspirations when they meet. Ilya is a snarky transplant from Russia. Shane is as Canadian as maple candy and almost as sweet. When a young Shane tries to shake hands with a young Ilya, Ilya is chilly and slightly contemptuous. Right before they get recruited by teams with a legendary rivalry, the press begins to play up an enmity between them where there is, admittedly, a strong dislike.
During a photoshoot when they are barely eighteen, they realize there is a spark there, an attraction so hot that it bewilders them. Soon they’re having hot sex that can be angry or irritated, or a competition to prove to the other that he is as hot for them as they are hot for him. Their enemies-with-benefits relationship lasts several years. All the while the media and their teams make hay out of their rivalry. When Ilya and Shane realize that they have fallen for each other, it seems like a disaster. Bad enough to be queer and in the NHL, but to love your greatest rival, too?
This was the rare enemies-to-lovers contemporary that worked for me. I like the trope a lot in fantasy, PNR, and historical settings, where there can be warring countries, packs, or clans, but in a contemporary context, it often relies on childish grudge-keeping. Here it worked partly because they were competitive people and enjoyed competing out of bed as well as in it and partly because they were so young when their rivalry started.
I liked Shane in all his uncertain sweetness but loved Ilya in all his sarcastic swagger. I liked that for many years this was an open relationship, with both of them seeing other people—it made sense given their initial enmity and the anti-gay vibe of professional sports. Shane was trying to figure out his sexuality, too (Ilya was bisexual and it was sexy and romantic that even though there were gorgeous women in his life, it was Shane he lusted for most).
The structure here is really creative. There are no flashbacks but the book follows Shane and Ilya over seven years (from ages eighteen to twenty-five), with a chapter or so for each time they meet and hook up when their teams compete. The book had a little too much sex. I loved much of that (it showed the changes in how they felt about each other through the years) but by the last couple of sex scenes I was ready to cry uncle. Heated Rivalry was also kind of fluffy but I still had a great time reading it, and I even reread parts of it a couple more times.
I’ll read The Long Game for sure, though. B+/A-.
On the surface, Ryan and Fabian are as different as can be. Ryan is a burly NHL enforcer whose job is to beat the crap out of players on the opposing team. He struggles with depression and anxiety, including fear of flying, and he hasn’t taken satisfaction in his job for years. Fabian is a musician whose compositions are just starting to gain traction. Wearing eyeliner and eyeshadow, necklaces, and lace underwear gives him joy in his identity.
When Fabian was in high school his family, massive hockey fans, rejected him for being so unlike the aggressively masculine hockey-playing high school students they hosted every year. Fabian still hates hockey because all those boys but one were callous and contemptuous. Ryan was that one; when he lived with Fabian’s family and he was supportive and sweet.
Ryan is now out and living in Toronto’s LGBTQIA+ village. When they meet up again, feelings they never confessed to having in their youth return. Their relationship restores Ryan’s long-absent sex drive and helps him with his confidence issues. Fabian feels lucky to have attracted such a sweet and caring man. But trouble crops up when their feelings about hockey come into conflict.
Unlike with Scott in Game Changer, I could see why Ryan would get involved with Fabian. They do have common ground, including their bonding as teens and the secret crushes they had on each other then. Both were trapped then, too—Fabian never fit in with his family and Ryan didn’t fit in with other players, but they hadn’t reached independence yet so neither could escape. In adulthood, Fabian has things Ryan lacks and needs—an inner sense of security and comfort with himself. Ryan offers Fabian his first truly supportive relationship; the men he’s been involved with in the past haven’t been good to him.
Unfortunately, the problems I had with this book far outweighed the parts that worked. I wasn’t engaged by Ryan and Fabian as characters because although I bought their relationship, I didn’t buy them as people.
With regard to Ryan, it’s hard to imagine someone who suffers from acute anxiety being an NHL player, or an NHL player lacking passion for his sport. I’m sorry, but no. To play at this level you have to be extremely talented, competitive, confident, and passionate about the game. There are so many people hungry for that job and if you are not as hungry for it as any of them, it’s unlikely you’ll last long.
I also didn’t get how Ryan could be out without attracting attention from the press. Supposedly the fact that another NHL player had come out enabled him not to stand out, but come on! Not a single hockey fan seemed to notice him hanging out in Toronto’s village or in clubs. The press didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t buy that even a little.
My issues with Fabian’s character were even worse.
There was also something else that infuriated me, and that was the casual tokenism with which Fabian’s cultural background was treated. We are told that Fabian is “Lebanese” but nothing else beyond that, and other than his surname (Salah) there are no indicators of his supposed culture. Nothing even as basic (and simple to research) as a love of Middle Eastern food.
Further, as one who was born in a country that borders Lebanon, I can say definitively that the author signaled via the characterization of Fabian’s family that she didn’t give a fuck for Lebanese culture. Hockey is not a sport that’s remotely popular in the Middle East, yet Fabian’s family members are fanatical about it. This is not the average fandom (I would have been fine with that); his parents coach hockey for a living, his sister is a competitive women’s hockey player, and the family hosts a young hockey player every year for an entire year. A more common form of fandom I could have gone with, but the juxtaposition between the family’s unusual level of participation in and passion for a sport that’s such a big aspect of North American and Northern European culture and the absence of any evidence of Lebanese culture in *any* of these people made the tokenism blatant.
Tough Guy should have been another DNF for me. I only stuck it out because I was hoping for cameos by Ilya and Shane from Heated Rivalry. There were a few and they were the best parts of the book but I still ended up wishing I’d ditched it earlier. C-/D.