Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: Beta Test by Annabeth Albert

Cover of Beta Test. A dark-haired Desi man leans over to kiss a blonde white man, who has one hand raised to cup the Desi man's cheek.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Tristan is determined to make a good impression at his first proper job, helping to market the game Space Villager. Too bad his concurrent hire, Ravi, is so slapdash. Ravi breezes into orientation in a very flash outfit, cracks jokes about hangovers, and--worst of all--proves to be exactly the kind of guy Tristan’s most prone to crushing on. Ravi’s not exactly thrilled with Tristan’s perpetually ironed wardrobe or his blandly colour-coded task lists, either, let alone the guy’s assertion Ravi is lazy. (Hello, he works sixty hour weeks and volunteers. What more does Tristan want?)

Tensions finally explode between them at an office party made even worse by an outbreak of food poisoning that ensures they’re the only two people who can prep the game’s booth for an important convdention. Eep. Neither one of them’s looking forward to a multi-day road trip in each other’s company, but it doesn't take them long to realize it could be exactly what they both need.

BETA TEST [Amazon | Kobo | Scribd Audio] is the second book in Annabeth Albert’s #gaymers series, which focuses on the employees of a popular crowdfunded game. As is the case with most romance series, you don’t need to read the first book (STATUS UPDATE) to enjoy this one, though I’d definitely recommend checking out the earlier book as soon as you can because it's wonderful.

As is BETA TEST. Wonderful, wonderful wonderful!

I could copy and paste “wonderful” eighty more times, and it’d be the most accurate review I’ve ever written.

Annabeth Albert creates some of the best characters in romance. On the very first page, when Tristan’s excited to use his new highlighter on the employee manual, I nodded and said, “I’m gonna like him.” It’s such a small, telling detail, and it’s only the first of many that clue the reader in to who Tristan is and how he reacts to the world. Albert takes similar care with Ravi, whose orientation behavior horrifies Tristan but shows us he's a casual, accepting, driven guy. He’s uninterested in being anyone other than himself, and he tries very, very hard in every area of his life, despite Tristan’s assumptions about his work ethic. Albert lets them make these misleading first impressions, then gives them space to unpack their initial assessments so they can connect in deeper ways.

By deeper, I don’t mean strictly romantic. In every book of hers I've read, Albert’s characters never act on their physical attraction unless they actually like one another; something I appreciate, as I cannot get behind a romance unless everyone involved is friends as well as lovers. Both Tristan and Ravi recognize they’ve behaved badly towards one another, at the party and before, and they both make an effort to reach out and find common ground in the wake of their blow-up. And in doing so, they find they have more in common than they thought. They start cultivating a genuine friendship.

What’s more, they stretch to accommodate each other in the areas where they don’t quite mesh. They recognize their own biases, understand the other guy's truths might be different from their own, and make an effort to treat each other with respect by acknowledging these biases and differing truths. It’s gorgeous, and it doesn't happen between the lines. We watch them work through it as the story barrels along. Albert acknowledges it’s not always easy to afford others this sort of respect, and when either Ravi or Tristan messes up they both reflect on what they could’ve done better.

Albert also makes it clear that even when they’re on the outs, Ravi and Tristan admire things about each other. Ravi’s an amazing artist and Tristan knows it (even if he does consider it inappropriate for Ravi to doodle on everything). Tristan’s organizational skills keep the Space Villager team on target, and Ravi’s as impressed with that as their bosses are (even if he does wish Tristan would loosen up a touch, and maybe use a brighter colour code). There’s conflict between them right from the get-go, but this isn’t an enemies to lovers story. It’s more a frustrated fans of each other to lovers story.

I love this sort of setup.

Here, as in STATUS UPDATE, Albert stresses that coming out is a personal decision every queer person needs to make for themself, when they're ready. Part of the fight at the party involves Tristan feeling forced to loudly proclaim his sexuality to avoid allegations of homophobia, and everyone immediately recognizes that is not a position he should’ve been put in. Space Villager works hard to be a safe space for people of all sexualities, races, and religions, but just because it’s safe for someone to be out at the office doesn’t mean it’s safe for them full stop, or that they’re comfortable with disclosing to a group instead of gauging people individually. And office knowledge can very easily trickle into the outside world.

The book is crystal clear about this, and about the importance of consent and support within a relationship. When Tristan and Ravi get it on (as we all knew they would), they spend time discussing what they’re comfortable with, what they’re nervous about, and where their tastes may differ. Tristan’s previously been led to believe he’s a terrible lover, so Ravi makes sure to focus on the stuff he does well instead of tearing him down, too. It’s the sort of steamy, supportive sex I can most definitely get behind.

Both men have hangups of other sorts, of course. (Can’t have a romance novel without hangups.) They initially bond over troubles with their respective families. Ravi’s mother and grandmother flat out refuse to accept he’s gay; a major source of tension that’s made him feel like he can’t attend his sister’s upcoming wedding. Tristan’s mother is a powerful judge who’s thinking of running for governor on a values platform, and she’s made it clear he can only indulge his “phase” if he doesn’t let it impact her career. It’s heartbreaking, and the text doesn’t pull any punches on either man’s side.

Additional tensions arise because Ravi had an office romance go south in the past, and it ended up ruining his last gig. He loves working at Space Villager and is terrified he’ll be demoted to drudge work if he and Tristan cause drama around the office. It takes time for him to recognize that Space Villager isn’t his former workplace and Tristan isn’t his former boyfriend. And in the meantime, his hangups strain their relationship.

Tristan’s an introvert, too, so sometimes he really needs to get away from people to recharge. To Ravi’s credit, he gets that--but it does take him some time to recognize he doesn't always communicate his thoughts in ways Tristan is equipped to pick up on, while the things Tristan says and does are heavily rooted in both his introversion and his family situation. More tension ensues.

Things escalate throughout the last 20%. I spent most of it sobbing and reading as quickly as I could to reach the HEA.

Of course, Albert also packs the book with lots of cool stuff about gaming and pop culture and road trips. She builds her settings as carefully as her characters, layering small details to make them feel real and lived in. Everything delighted me, from the LAN party to Ravi’s Star Wars Funko Pops.

All in all, BETA TEST is another absolute winner from Annabeth Albert. I started the next #gaymers novel, CONNECTION ERROR, right after I finished it, and will have a review for you in the near future.

2 comments:

  1. DID I ALSO TELL YOU I LOVE ROAD TRIPS, oh man, when I was commenting on your last post to say how Beta Test saved my life on a friend's wedding day, I think I maybe forgot to tell you that I love love love it when romance novels take place over the course of a road trip. So much possibilities! WHAT IF BED SHARING. WHAT IF STRANDED. :D :D :D

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