JOINT REVIEW: The Long Game by Rachel Reid
Janine, Sirius and I were all so excited to read The Long Game and eager to talk about it once we did so we decided to review it together. Please note there will be series spoilers for prior books. Heated Rivalry is essential prior reading but Role Model is also recommended to get all the background to best enjoy this one. ~ Kaetrin
CW: depression and mental illness, reference to a prior suicide, homophobia
Kaetrin: At the end of Heated Rivalry, Ilya Rozanov and Shane Hollander had come out as friends publicly and started a charity together – something they both felt passionate about but also something which gave them an excuse to be seen together publicly. They had also exchanged “I love yous” and decided to be together but to keep their romantic connection extremely private. Ilya had moved to Ottawa, to be closer to Shane (about two hours away in Montreal) and hopes one day to become a Canadian citizen. Very few people know about them – Shane’s parents, Shane’s friends Rose and Hayden – and they plan to keep it that way until the pair retire from professional hockey which they both hope will be a long time into the future. It is a HEA but it felt not quite complete because they were so restricted.
Janine: I felt Heated Rivalry had an extraordinarily satisfying ending. It honored the high stakes of the star-crossed lovers conflict and represented a commitment that was unusually romantic because it required so much sacrifice. I loved that Heated Rivalry’s ending wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns and before reading The Long Game, I feared the second book would mar that for me. I can’t say anything about how the book ends but I was very happy with it overall.
Sirius: I was very worried too! I was so worried that what we would get to witness in this book would be Shane and Ilya breaking up with very little reason for doing so, then making up just to make sure they will get their happy ending. I should have trusted the author more.
Kaetrin: The Long Game picks up three years later. The hiding is wearing on both men but especially Ilya. They spend wonderful summers together, largely at Shane’s house on the lake but once the season starts they have to work hard to carve out time to connect.
Some of the timeline of The Long Game overlaps with that of Role Model so readers will know some of the major beats already – I admit that there was one in particular I could not wait to reach, but the start of The Long Game occurs even before Troy Barrett joins the Ottawa Centaurs.
Janine: I got so impatient I did a search for “Troy” to see when he would show up. Knowing that helped me relax and enjoy everything that came before.
Kaetrin: There are sections from both main characters but the book is mainly from Ilya’s perspective. At least that was my perception but maybe it was influenced by how much Ilya jumps off the page. He steals every scene he’s in. Shane is still paranoid about being outed publicly; Ilya cares less about it and the more time that passes, the more he struggles with the hiding and the distance.
Janine: I don’t think it’s just your perception. Books on writing say that there is always one character who is most central, even among central characters. In Heated Rivalry that’s Shane and in The Long Game it’s definitely Ilya.
In Heated Rivalry Shane was also the most vulnerable. He was less confident, less experienced and secure in his sexuality, and more sensitive. It was easier for Ilya to hide his queerness in plain sight—since he was bisexual, he had the option of marrying happily without jeopardizing his hockey career. That wasn’t a possibility for Shane so he needed Ilya more than Ilya seemed to need him. That equalized when Ilya decided to transfer to Ottawa so he could be near Shane.
The Long Game reverses that power dynamic. Shane is now out as gay to his teammates and has some level of acceptance for who he is, while Ilya (to protect their secret) still has to live a lie. Shane has the support of friends, as Ilya doesn’t, and is still playing for Montreal, a top-tier team (Ottawa is a big step down for Ilya in that way). Shane has citizenship and Ilya doesn’t (as an immigrant I really appreciated that deportation was one of Ilya’s fears). And Shane has his loving parents nearby. They are loving to Ilya too but if he and Shane were to break up, Ilya would lose them. Naturally Ilya is the more vulnerable one.
This role reversal allows Reid to avoid a re-tread and explore new facets of Shane and Ilya. The passage of time adds depth too. Ilya is now softer, more tender and more generous under his snarky exterior, while Shane feels his responsibility to his team even more keenly and is surer of himself in some ways (though as uptight as ever in others).
Kaetrin: Ilya doesn’t resent Shane but he has no one unconnected to Shane who knows the truth. He used to be a party animal, now he lives very quietly. He is losing his enjoyment of hockey (his team is terrible) and he’s desperately lonely for both emotional connection and physical touch. Ilya is a very tactile person and the separation from Shane is even harder on him than Shane. Added to that, Ilya has a history of depression in his family (his mother died by suicide) and he is beginning to fear that he is depressed himself and worries if he could possibly face the same end as his mother. As wide open about so many things as Ilya is, he doesn’t speak to Shane about these things for the most part. Both men often complain about not being able to spend enough time together, but those extra things, Ilya keeps mostly to himself.
There’s a sense of dread as the book continues, as the reader wonders if this tension will split the pair up.
It’s a romance novel so we all know they end up together but I was really worried they’d break up and I so much didn’t want that to happen.
Janine: Reid handles that building tension so well. Even when things get rocky and communication and attention start to break down, she never lets us forget how much love there still is underneath all that.
Kaetrin: Later on in the book that thing I was waiting for (which I first read about in Role Model) happens and it is, pardon the pun, a game changer. Lots of things happen as a result and it leads to a whole new set of anticipations and tensions. So cleverly plotted!
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that a large part of the story is the pair coming out publicly as in love. I won’t give away how that affects their careers or how it happens but that thing that was missing from their HEA in Heated Rivalry is the main point of the The Long Game. How can they be together in the light?
Janine: Going into The Long Game I expected the book’s main focus to be on Ilya and Shane getting outed ahead of their timeline, so I was surprised (in a good way) that it was structured around something deeper—the interplay between their relationship and Ilya’s struggle with depression. Not “How can they be together in the light?” (the answer to that has always been obvious IMO) but “How can they make the relationship healthy and safe for both of them?” A big part of that was the question of whether their relationship could be safe if it stayed secret.
Sirius: I agree with this and I also very much appreciated how hard it was for Ilya to ask for help.
Kaetrin: That’s all of a piece to me. Being “together in the light” encompasses all of that for me. I saw the depression storyline as an important component of the book but for me the structure was about how they could be together publicly.
I loved Heated Rivalry but there was that tiny bit which was unfinished to me. Maybe I had a sense of the strain it would put on them to have to keep hiding – and The Long Game both showed that strain and completed that missing piece. I wouldn’t say that the books are a duology. Heated Rivalry is a complete story. But I think the HEA is complete now and, for me at least, it wasn’t, quite, at the end of the first book no matter how much I loved it.
While I took a slightly different view to you, Janine, about the importance of the mental illness storyline in the structure of the book I did think the representation was especially well done.
Janine: The depression representation was amazingly good. So many details resonated with my experience. Not just the melancholy, but also the fatigue depression brings on. How smiling for other people can sharpen the sadness inside. How difficult depression can make it to open up to anyone. The way the need for human connection hurts because it is accompanied by a feeling of isolation and unbridgeable distance. The fragility of the heart and the distorted thinking, including the loss of self-worth. Even the need for simple touch resonated with me.
Sirius: As an aside, how good was the way author handled inclusion of some Russian comments in the book? It is always a challenge I would imagine to show that the character/ characters speak another language than English – you don’t want to spend half of the page writing in foreign language, but you want to keep that balance and I thought it was done very well. Occasionally Ilya says something tender in Russian (and occasionally Shane can even respond :)), but several times she just noted that the characters spoke in Russian while we were reading the English dialogue and to me it just made sense and it probably minimized the chances of handling the language incorrectly.
Kaetrin: I agree – although you would obviously understand the Russian text and I didn’t. I did enjoy the way Ilya gave Shane funny and unusual pet names.
Kaetrin: The beginning of the book had me impatient and nervous as I worried that things were going to fall apart for my favourite couple in the Game Changers series. The tension, in hindsight, is delicious and tight as a bowstring. On first read at least, I did not appreciate it as much but I see now that I was supposed to feel that way.
I like Shane but Ilya steals the show for me most of the time. He is such a lovable jerk. I adore him.
…Ilya took a peek and saw the handsome man laughing with Shane about something. And then the fucker placed a hand on Shane’s arm.
There was no good reason for Ilya to skate down the ice with one of the pucks and fire it at the glass behind Shane’s head, but he did it anyway. He could hear Shane scream, and Ilya laughed when he whipped around, eyes flashing with fury.
“Asshole!” Shane yelled.
Ilya gestured with his stick toward the children on the ice and shook his head. “Language, Hollander.”
Things were tense between them for the rest of the day. Ilya couldn’t even apologize because Shane wouldn’t talk to him. Not that he felt like apologizing; he just wanted Shane to stop being mad about it.
And Ilya wanted to stop feeling embarrassed about doing it. It had been immature and petty and unprofessional. He still didn’t want to apologize, though.
Janine: I love Ilya too. I felt Shane was a little retconned early in the book. He was so lovable, kind, and caring in Heated Rivalry and here he starts out oblivious to some of what Ilya is going through.
These things didn’t seem in character, especially the last. As the book progressed, he returned to being the lovable Shane of Heated Rivalry but the early retconning made me a bit disappointed in him at first.
Ilya also seemed to have changed almost too much from the cocky, arrogant boy he once was but I was able to believe it more with him because of his illness.
Sirius: I agree with you that Shane was a bit oblivious at the beginning, but I was not annoyed with him even then. Ilya was not communicating and he was not a mind reader. I do not blame Ilya for that at all, mind you, his reasons for not telling Shane everything made perfect sense, but I was not annoyed with Shane either. In other words to me they both acted as real human beings which is the best compliment I can give really, where characterization is concerned.
Janine: That’s a great point and as I reread the book I came to feel that way to a large degree. That was 90% of it, but I did feel there was some obliviousness that went beyond that.
Kaetrin: I think Ilya had changed as a result of having to hide and be so reliant on Shane for any emotional support and connection for three years. It made sense to me he’d be more vulnerable as a result.
Janine: Yes, though I had to readjust, the change in Ilya made sense to me for those reasons too. I wouldn’t apply the word retconning to Ilya’s characterization, only to Shane’s, and even there it was minor.
Kaetrin: I also loved the way Shane’s parents basically adopt Ilya, how he spends time with them in Ottawa without Shane.
I was rooting for this couple the whole way through the book. I wanted the full fairy tale for them. Possibly if I knew more about hockey some things would have been more obvious to me than they were (just how significant Ilya and Shane’s rival status actually is for example) but everything I know about hockey I have learned from romance novels.
Sirius: I used to watch hockey when I was younger (and a lot of soccer when I was younger too and I still watch soccer when I can, but also significantly less. These days tennis occupies most of my sports watching time :)), but I miss team sports and very much appreciate the portrayal of their sporting rivalry. I don’t think the book needed more descriptions of actual hockey, but I still would have loved more if that makes sense.
Kaetrin: As much as I enjoyed The Long Game, here were a few things I queried though. I didn’t understand quite what happened with the Commissioner – for me there was a missing link in the chain and I don’t think it had anything to do with me not knowing much about the sport. I expected more to happen and it kind of fizzled. And I thought there was a little too much sex, particularly in the first half of the book. The couple were already together so I didn’t need the ongoing proof of their sexual compatibility. I was far more interested in their emotional journey. That said, there were sex scenes that did drive the story forward (the one in the trophy room was fantastic) and I didn’t hate the ones I thought were not needed – it’s just that I felt that some were delaying the meat of the story I was hungry for.
Janine: The commissioner is a stock villain, unfortunately.
Kaetrin: Oh I don’t know, I think he rang pretty true!
Janine: I just meant that he was flat. I found nothing about him surprising or three-dimensional.
I am going to disagree on the sex scenes. For me every single one felt necessary. The early ones showed how Ilya’s need for security in Shane’s love was met (though far from sufficiently) through sex. Sex was in some ways the main way it was met (to the degree that it was) before that power differential started really balancing.
Even while he was disregarding some of Ilya’s emotional needs in other contexts, Shane was focused on them in bed. I’m not sure I would have forgiven Shane if I hadn’t seen how generous and trusting he was with Ilya in bed, how committed he was to giving Ilya whatever Ilya wanted or asked for—and these were often things that required Shane to put himself in a vulnerable position. Ilya usually had control and power there and that balanced out his vulnerability in other contexts to an extent. Sex was also the part of the relationship that always worked; it was rock solid even when everything else was precarious, and that was very important to the story too.
Then, too, I’m not sure I would have bought this as Ilya and Shane’s relationship if there hadn’t been a fair amount of sex because their connection was rooted in sex from its beginnings in Heated Rivalry. It was their love language for years and to a large degree still is throughout The Long Game.
Sirius: I agree with you Janine, once again. Funnily I loved Heated Rivalry despite myself because there was SO much sex, but as you said their connection was rooted in their sexual explorations and that’s how their love grew. It made sense to me, and in this book I did not feel that there was too much sex at all. It was just perfect and every single scene felt necessary and felt part of the development of their relationship.
Janine: My main criticism is that the early section set before and during the summer camps feels slow. Also, Shane’s cultural identity is largely ignored.
I enjoyed several side characters: Ilya’s teammates Troy, Wyatt, Bood, and Luca, Shane’s teammate Hayden and his family, Ilya’s kid neighbors, Shane’s parents (a scene between Ilya and Shane’s dad was just gorgeous).
Sirius: I loved the side characters and I loved Ilya’s teammates, but I also did think that Ilya’s team was too good to be true. I did not complain much, but it did feel too good to be true to me.
Janine: Yes! I felt exactly the same way about them when I read Role Model, so I was more prepared for it this time.
I keep meaning to mention how much I liked the dialogue. It’s so much fun and almost always phrased in a “young guy” way.
Kaetrin: There were times in the book where I was angry with Shane and desperately sad for Ilya, where Ilya and his pain broke my heart. I had all the feels reading The Long Game. And for a book about an existing couple that’s pretty special.
Janine: Feels are fun but not always enough by themselves to make me love a book. But The Long Game was not only filled with yearning, it also had more depth and dimension than any of Reid’s earlier books IMO. Going in, I feared a mostly exterior conflict would make the book predictable and a mostly internal-to-the-relationship conflict might lessen my faith in Ilya and Shane’s commitment to each other and in their future happiness. I was wrong on both counts. The conflict was at least as much between them as external, but though I had a couple moments of being angry at Shane, the book ended up strengthening my faith in their partnership. Yes, their relationship was tested, but it passed that test. I closed the book seeing them as even better to and for each other than I had before because of that.
Kaetrin: I had high expectations for The Long Game and for the most part they were met. It’s always a worry when a much-anticipated book comes out. Can it live up to expectations? In this case it very much did.
What grade are you giving The Long Game Janine & Sirius?
Sirius: A, definitely.
Janine: I just finished my fourth read of The Long Game, and I’ve read Heated Rivalry two more times recently, too (The Long Game enriches it so much). I’m giving this book a straight A.
Kaetrin: Well that’s the trifecta. It’s an A from me also.
NOTE TO READERS: Please keep this comment thread spoiler free for those who want to go into the book knowing as little as possible or who haven’t read it yet. We have another post up for discussion of spoilers here.