Game Changers, Book #6
Heat Factor: It’s sexy (like the rest of the series), but unlike in Heated Rivalry, most of the sex is at home, so it’s heavy on their emotional connection this time, and less about the tittilation of sexual awakening and sneaking around
Character Chemistry: Shane likes to be *rewarded* (wink) for the discipline of never letting on that he’s in love with Ilya, while all Ilya wants is affection
Plot: Shane and Ilya have been secretly in a monogamous relationship for three years, and it was all going fine…until a confluence of components of Ilya’s life make it not so fine anymore
Overall: A relationship in trouble in which both parties really want to make it work, but are fearful that they won’t be able to
I’m going to go ahead and say don’t read this book if you haven’t read Heated Rivalry. And if you haven’t read Heated Rivalry, you should. If I’d been asked to do literary analysis of Heated Rivalry in high school, I might not have hated English. (Not that they would have let us read a book with that much sex in high school, which is a shame.) And if you’re going to read Heated Rivalry, stop reading this review now.
Heated Rivalry has one of the best HFN endings I’ve ever read, and it doesn’t involve a coming out. Typically in M/M sports romance in particular, part of the conflict is that at least one party is closeted and the couple can’t live their truth and be happy until everyone is out, the relationship is acknowledged, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. But not everyone feels safe coming out, and sometimes it would legitimately harm someone’s career to come out, even if it’s technically illegal to discriminate against an employee based on sexual orientation. With Shane and Ilya both being professional athletes and also rivals playing on rival teams, there’s more at stake for them than what we find in the usual M/M sports romance. So they’re committed, but still closeted.
But things can be fine until they’re not fine anymore, so even though Shane and Ilya have a whole plan that will give them their hockey career dreams and eventually the marriage they want, and even though they’ve been living that plan for three years, it’s not really a surprise that it turns into Not the Life Ilya Wants as the book opens. If ever there were A Thing to strain a relationship, it’s an agreement between partners that one partner later decides doesn’t work for them anymore. For Shane and Ilya, there are several points, including differences between their personalities, that eventually come to the breaking point that becomes the conflict of The Long Game.
One thing that struck me about Heated Rivalry is that, while Shane feels very alone for much of the book, it is Ilya, the life of the party, who actually is alone. Shane’s friends and family are everywhere. Ilya is estranged from his family and is never shown to have any deep friendships during the story like Shane has with Hayden and later Rose. One of the reasons that Shane and Ilya connect so beautifully even though they spend so much time apart is because they’ve unthinkingly forged a relationship based on deep trust. Shane knows and understands that Ilya is struggling when no one else does. Even in subsequent books, Ilya keeps himself apart from the other queer players he’s (antagonistically) befriended. So the fact that in The Long Game we finally see just how much Ilya is emotionally struggling is addressing a thread left dangling in Heated Rivalry.
At the end of Heated Rivalry, Ilya’s moved from the team he signed with as a rookie, the team that won him the Stanley Cup, to a struggling team in Ottawa so that he can live closer to Shane. As a result, he’s largely given up his hockey superstardom for his relationship. Shane is still with the team he’s always been with, the team that’s just won the Stanley Cup. Beyond that, Ilya is in a position of constantly choosing Shane, which means he has to keep a huge secret; whereas Shane has made Ilya conveniently fit into his life, and he gets off on keeping the secret. What we’ve seen in prior books in the series is made explicit here: Ilya has befriended other queer players in the league, while Shane might be out to his team but is still very much living the life he did before he was out (thereby not forcing anyone to confront his otherness). While deep personal connection isn’t really Ilya’s wheelhouse, it’s pretty clear that, if his relationship were not a reason (or even an excuse) for him to hide, he would be much more open and engaged with the ever-growing queer NHL community. But he does have to hide.
The Long Game starts before Role Model, the prior book in the series, and continues past Role Model’s conclusion, and while there are some overlapping scenes, Reid has really focused the story of Role Model on that story’s protagonists and The Long Game on Shane and Ilya, so while readers of Role Model might have enjoyed some teasers, there’s extremely little redundancy. That said, Reid has crafted Ottawa as almost an ideal workplace, which you probably get a more immersive feel for in this book if you’ve also read Role Model. It’s like Ilya is living in a little oasis of safety while the rest of the world is pretty terrible. The New York Admirals were approaching the supportive and inclusive vibe of the Centaurs, but Ottawa is next level, with a coach that uses positive reinforcement rather than shaming to get results, an out and proud social media manager who feels welcome in the team’s locker room, a team dog that everybody loves, and teammates who cheer each other’s successes and socialize together. So the mood of this book is more aligned with the optimism of Role Model than with the isolation and angst of the other books in the series, but it also forms a central component of Ilya’s conflict, because he could take advantage of his community support network, but not without exposing his relationship with Shane.
Overall, this book is calmer than Heated Rivalry, with a much more contemplative mood. It’s addressing Ilya’s isolation and depression as well as the league’s grudging lip service to activism or diversity and inclusion. It’s showing us what we wish for (Ilya’s team culture) and what we realistically expect (Shane’s team culture).
I was unbelievably excited for this book. I read it the day we got the email notifying us it was available on NetGalley, and then because I binged it so fast and wanted to write a thoughtful review, I read it again a month later. And then I read parts of it again a month after that so I could actually sit down and write this review. The airplane scene and its aftermath that we experienced in Role Model was better than I imagined (I do love a “you almost died!” moment in my romance), and the resolution to Shane and Ilya’s romance that became something that could actually last long term into the future was a gift. But it is a sequel to Heated Rivalry, and its pathos is different.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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