The year is 2111 and Matt Tennimore works for the Queer Extraction Services Association in the Blue States of America. He has been called in for an assignment: rescue a captured Blue soldier who is stuck in Idaho, over in the Red States. In 2056, the United States had been divided into two parts following a civil war – Red and Blue. The cultures of the two regions are distinctly different, following the basic political ideology we have today, but taken to the extreme.
In the Red states, gays are persecuted and forced into “re-education,” along with being chipped and monitored. Gays can petition to be rescued by the Blue states and get asylum there. The Blue States are more liberal, more economically prosperous, and in some ways more advanced technically.
Matt is surprised to find that the soldier he is being sent to retrieve is former classmate (and former crush) James Ayala. Although the two were friends in high school and Matt was attracted to James, once James found out Matt was gay, he broke off their friendship and turned to cold looks and nasty comments instead. Yet the attraction is still there when Matt sees James again, and after James’s apology and explanation for his behavior, the two soon develop a friendship and ultimately romantic relationship.
One problem the men face is that James was subject to a military experiment and implanted with some sort of unknown device that is affecting his brain. It allows James to read brain waves from others that most people can not access or interpret, giving him an empathic ability to sense how someone is feeling or what they are intending. It also helps him sense when someone is approaching or they are being followed. As his brain continues to integrate this implant, James’s skills develop further, turning into an almost telepathic skill to read minds in some cases. Yet it is unclear exactly how the implant will continue to develop and if James is in danger from the experimentation.
This book combines three elements interwoven in the story. The first is the futuristic tale of a country divided along political lines. To be honest, this is the part of the book I struggled with the most. I found a lot of the exposition slowed the story down for me, especially in the beginning when there was a lot of background information all at once. I also frequently found it confusing and I had to reread sections to try and understand the politics, military, and other aspects of the world building. Now I am someone who likes to “get” everything before moving on, so I may have gotten more caught up than other readers would. But even by the end of the story, I still had trouble remembering what the acrononmys meant, and in some cases knowing whether they were “good guys” or “bad guys.”
The second element to the book is the road trip story as James and Matt race to get out of Idaho and back to Oregon. This is one of my favorite tropes and I thought it was done very well here. Lots of excitement that kept this story moving without just being a string of life-threatening situations one after another. There was a lot of time to get to know James and Matt and I really enjoyed the thrill of following their attempt to escape. I also think this is an area where the world-building really worked. Watching James’s mental talents develop as he learned how to use his implant was exciting, especially his mental telepathy with Matt and his ability to read and track the enemy. And I loved the friends they met along the way, especially Miz the “talking” horse and Beni the horny nun. (Leading to my favorite line of the book, “We need someone to fuck the nun.”)
At its heart, 18% Gray is really a love story though between Matt and James. I loved Matt’s voice right from the start in the prologue and he and James interacted so well together. It was interesting to see how James’s implant affected their relationship dynamic. Having your partner be able to read your thoughts (and in some cases influence them) adds a whole other layer of complexity to a relationship. I liked how real that all felt, from James almost mentally “pushing” Matt to do something before he caught himself, to how Matt struggles with keeping his feelings about James hidden from him, to the way James’s mood could change based on what Matt was feeling.
I also liked the way the book explores Matt’s submissive side, and his desire to be controlled by James during sex. Part of Matt wants to completely give in to this need, while the rest of him struggles with letting go. They are a perfect fit. James loves to have control and loves a man who can let go and just enjoy the pleasure and Matt loves to give himself over to James. The sex between them is super hot and their relationship felt real and loving.
Matt’s extended family was a great addition. I loved the grandpas Lance and Sid and especially the terrifying Gramma Anais! I enjoyed that the entire family were all military types, trained practically from birth to do these jobs, and almost like a club of cousins and relatives.
There was lot happening in this book and at times it felt like a bit too much to keep track of. But I loved the story of James and Matt and I really enjoyed the humor interwoven throughout. The road trip plot really worked for me, as did the part about the implant and how it affected both men. Despite the slower start, I would definitely recommend this book and look forward to reading more by this author.
P.S. According to Tenino’s website, a second book is in the works focusing on Laslo and Logan (I am so excited for this – loved Logan!).