It’s hard living the perfect life—always needing to be better than others, yet never actually measuring up in your father’s eyes. Kingston Bentley has a 4.0 GPA, is the star quarterback of a championship college team, and is a pretty good looking guy, but underneath he is strung tighter than a bow and skating on thin ice every second of the day. He goes to the local BDSM bar in order to feel the pain he needs to escape from all the guilt and doubt screaming in his head, but it never seems to be enough. When the coach brings on his own son, an outstanding quarterback in his own right, after a virtual stranger accuses Kingston of attempted rape, everything falls apart.
Memphis Sawyer didn’t want to transfer to his dad’s school or play on his football team, but he had no choice. Out and proud and also a trained Dom, Memphis can’t believe his eyes when he sees Kingston about to cross a line with a Dom who is out of control. Memphis stops the scene and realizes Kingston has recognized him. While he is not worried about that fact, what does have Memphis concerned is the knowledge that he will now be starting quarterback since Kingston missed the final championship game of the last season due to being jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. To make matters worse, Memphis has been told he will room with Kingston for the upcoming season. When he discovers the dark and dangerous secret Kingston has been hiding, Memphis decides to take matters into own hands, which includes making the bratty Kingston behave and embrace the inner submissive Memphis knows him to be.
Red Zone by T.S. McKinney & Shannon West is a college-aged coming out story that explores the fine line between needing pain in order to heighten one’s pleasure and feel safe, and using pain as a way to escape reality. With both Kingston and Memphis in the scene as submissive and Dom respectively, it’s up to Memphis to help Kingston understand that the abuse he heaps on his body, including the cutting he does in secret, is not the way to achieve control or feel comfort. The two embark on a rather tumultuous relationship that begins as a result of Memphis essentially blackmailing Kingston into obeying him and being his submissive and turns into something more loving and consensual.
After a rough beginning for these guys, I appreciated how Memphis really began to care for Kingston and grounded him when he needed it most. There was even mention of Kingston eventually going into counseling, which I felt was a positive step all around. I liked how the two young men moved from just being Dom and sub into a more loving partnership and established trust in each other. However, that was a rather long time in the making as a good percentage of this novel felt like Memphis forcing Kingston into a role he was not really ready to accept.
This is where I first had a problem with Red Zone. I understood the idea that Memphis was basically trying to help Kingston and keep him from self-abuse and dangerous behavior where he had no limit to the amount of pain he would accept. However, to force Kingston into a D/s relationship by threatening to expose his cutting just felt wrong on many levels to me. I may be in the minority opinion here, but I felt very uncomfortable with the way in which Memphis humiliated and mocked Kingston for a good fifty percent of this novel. Yes, I got that humiliation on some level was a kink and hot button for Kingston, but I felt that Memphis was incredibly mean-spirited and cavalier in his attitude and handling of a guy who really needed some serious counseling as opposed to a fledgling Dom who bullied him into the relationship. I was shocked when the authors allowed Memphis to fall back on the excuse that everyone gave poor Kingston a pass and never held him accountable, therefore Memphis could take control and use a sort of ‘tough love’ approach to force Kingston to acknowledge he was, in reality, a submissive at heart.
The second point in this novel that felt very contrived and off balance to me was Kingston’s over-the-top father and his anger issues. From the way in which the man flogged poor Kingston verbally every chance he got, to the ending of the novel where he admitted some things to Kingston that were just horrible and intended to be brutally painful, I felt that Mr. Bentley was more of a caricature of the classic drunken, abusive father often seen in sports-themed novels. How Kingston was not in a psych ward by this point in his life after living with this kind of father was amazing.
Red Zone had good intentions and some nice moments, but the overall premise for the relationship that develops between Kingston and Memphis was built on one person forcing another to do something and even thought that ultimately might have been good for Kingston, bullying is just that—bullying, and that is the territory I felt this novel crossed into more than once.