conventionally yoursRating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

Conrad Stewart seems to have his life under control and he works hard to keep people from knowing the truth. In fact, he is struggling to make ends meet and to pay for his medication. He is estranged from his family, working multiple jobs, and barely holding it together. The big bright spot in Con’s life is his love of Odyssey gaming. He is part of a group that plays regularly and whose participation in a popular Odyssey vlog has made them semi-celebrities in the gaming world. The only downside to his group is Alden Roth, who drives Conrad crazy with his prickly nature, constant bossiness, and the way he seemingly has the perfect life.

For Alden, his life is not all it seems either. His moms put constant pressure on him to achieve goals they have set, and they are driving his decisions about his future. Alden is neuro-diverse and doesn’t always know how to handle social situations. What’s worse is that his moms are determined to find out “what’s wrong” with Alden, rather than accepting him as he is. Alden wishes he fit in better with the Odyssey group, but he doesn’t quite know how to have that calm, casual attitude Conrad seems to radiate.

When the group gets an unexpected set of free tickets to one of the biggest Odyssey conferences, it seems like the perfect opportunity. The con includes a tournament and the winner gets a chance to be on the pro tour. For Con, this could put an end to all his money problems, as well as showing his family he can succeed without them. For Alden, winning would be a chance to pick his own direction for his future. When the group decides to road trip to Vegas for the event, both Alden and Con are wary about spending so much time together, considering they can barely tolerate each other’s presence. But the chance to win the tournament is too important to pass up.

At first things are rocky between the guys as they spend long days in the car together. But slowly, Alden and Con begin to get to know one another and soon realize that the perfect life they imagined for each other is really just a illusion. The pair start to bond and are surprised to find themselves becoming friends. As the days pass, that friendship begins to turn to more. But when the idyllic trip ends, Alden and Con are faced with having to compete against each other in a tournament that means everything to both of them. Now they have to figure out how to fight for the lives they want, while not losing each other.

I really enjoyed this latest release from Annabeth Albert. This story reminded me a lot of some of the author’s older works that I have loved and the set up here pushes all of my buttons, with its enemies to lovers, road trip plot (and only one bed!). Even knowing that Conrad and Alden would eventually make their way from feuding to loving, I really enjoyed the journey.

We know right from the start that both Con and Alden imagine the other lives a perfect life. Both men are dealing with jealousy and irritation, as well as stress about their own circumstances. Neither particularly wants to road trip together, but they both have their eye on the ultimate prize that they think will change their life. It is not a huge surprise that these guys end up learning a lot more about one another and realize that the image they have built up in their mind is far different from reality. But I think Albert does a really nice job developing this connection between the men in a way that keeps the plot device from feeling trite. The road trip they take builds a trust and a friendship between Con and Alden that gives them a chance to really open up about their lives and their frustrations. The progress from enemies, to friends, to lovers feels steady, but also developed with nice depth. I could believe in the strength of their feelings for one another in a short period given the intensity of the time they spend together.

While the main focus of this story is Alden and Con’s journey (both literal and emotional), gaming is a big element to the book overall. I am not a gamer in the least, and I did not find it overwhelming or hard to follow. At times, I’ll admit that I didn’t totally understand the strategies of their gameplay, but it didn’t really matter. Albert does a great job not only making the game accessible to readers, but also using it to showcase the characters. For example, Con’s style of play is very in keeping with the type of person he is, and it is showcased through the gaming scenes. All that said, if you are just totally not into the idea of gaming at all, you may find this less to your liking. But I really don’t think you need to be invested in the gaming world to enjoy this book.

As with many of Alberts’ other works, the author’s research really shows here. There is great detail, both of the Odyssey game itself (which the author created), as well as the various places the guys stop on the way to the conference. It really brings the whole story to life so nicely. I’ll also note that the book has a nice range of diversity, including Alden being a neuro-diverse character with a Jewish background, and having a non-binary side character (who I anticipate will get their own story at some point in the series).

So I really enjoyed this one a lot and found the tone and the story right up my alley. I am very excited about this series and I can’t wait for more.

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