Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review: Looking For Group by Alexis Hall

Painted cover of Looking For Group. Two white boys sit back to back, their attention focused on their laptops. The spectral figures of a female orc and a female elf float above them.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

It’s been ages since Drew actually had fun playing Heroes of Legend, his MMO, so he ragequits his high-ranked guild and joins a more casual group with a reputation for tolerance and friendship. His new guildmates include Solace, a Healer who spends a lot of time enjoying the game’s little details. Drew starts exploring the game world alongside Solace, and it’s not long before he’s got a major crush on this awesome girl--so it throws him when he learns Solace is a local boy named Kit. It doesn’t take him long to adjust, though, and the two begin dating offline and on; a fabulous arrangement, until Drew begins to worry about the sheer amount of time he and Kit spend in online spaces.

The moment I learned LOOKING FOR GROUP [Amazon | Kobo | Scribd] existed, I knew I had to read it. I adored Alexis Hall’s PROSPERITY and LIBERTY & OTHER STORIES, and I’ve recently discovered gaming stories delight me in the same way sports stories do. I don’t watch sports and I don’t game1, but I love media about these topics because the people who engage in them do so with their whole souls. I’m always up for a story about someone who’s passionate about something, and it’s all the better if this passion plays out within a romance novel.

Because passion for games (or sports) easily feeds into passion of another sort, dontcha know.

Drew and Kit’s passion for the game helps them build a strong connection. Kit’s enamoured of all the little details--the views, the strange pets, the stuff you can do purely for the fun of it--while Drew’s lost most of that sense of wonder as of the novel’s opening. Kit’s passion helps Drew rediscover his own, both within HoL and with regards to gaming as a whole when they play other things together in person, hunched over the same laptop. It’s a delight, and a wonderful way to show the growing closeness between them.

Their relationship also stretches in other ways. Drew’s alarmed when he realizes Kit is a guy because he’s only ever dated girls, but he talks it over with his best friends and with Kit and decides what he and Kit have is worth cultivating. So they do. There’s some awkwardness between them here and there because neither of them has ever had a boyfriend, and because Drew is still figuring out how to balance what he wants with what the world tells him he should want, but these blips only make their relationship feel more organic. The two of them talk through and about all sorts of things, ensuring they maintain their friendship as they strengthen their romance.

I believe Hall’s critiquing the Gay For You trope with a lot of their conversations, especially when Drew first realizes he’s attracted to Kit, but I haven’t read enough GFY novels to recognize everything he does within that context. I’m sure those of you who have will get a lot out of those segments.

With the sexuality angle sorted early on, the book’s major tension comes from the two guys’ differing approaches to social stuff. Drew’s got a tight group of local friends who he sees in person on a regular basis. They go to to pubs and restaurants, hang around making plans they never end up doing, play boardgames… all your average university student activities. Kit, in contrast, is friendly with his fellow students but doesn’t spend a lot of time with them outside of class. He’s far closer to his online friends; and Drew, who’s got plenty in common with his classmates and has had tons of terrible, unfriendly online interactions, doesn’t get this. At all. As someone with many online friends, some of whom I’ve met in person and some of whom I’m unlikely to ever meet, my heart ached for Kit even as I understood why Drew had so much trouble wrapping his mind around the concept.

So far as the other trappings go, LOOKING FOR GROUP is a contemporary romance that often feels like a fantasy because of how much time the characters spend in their game. This is a great draw for a reader like me, who loves both contemporary fiction and fantasy, but it’s also a potential barrier for non-gamers--which, as previously stated, is also me. There’s a ton of gamer lingo, and while it’s possible to understand some of it through context there are many cases where I felt the glossary was a necessity rather than a perk. Trouble was, the ebook format made it awkward to flip back and forth between the glossary and my place in the story. I ended up reading it in a single gulp after the fact, to fill in any remaining gaps.

The setting had another perhaps unintended side effect: it made games feel inaccessible to someone like me. Even within Drew and Kit’s friendly guild, it’s pretty clear everyone’s expected to be well versed in the ins and outs of gaming, and most guilds are far harsher than theirs. While I’ve never played an MMO, I’ve always figured I could dive into one someday. They look like a lot of fun, but I'm no longer sure that's enough to offset the potential difficulties in starting out.

That issue aside, LOOKING FOR GROUP is a lovely book. The romance is sweet and organic, and the problems in Drew and Kit’s relationship feel both serious and surmountable, provided each of the guys puts in the work necessary to understand the other’s perspective. Those of you who are gamers are gonna eat the gameplay straight from the jar, too.

  1. That is, I don’t game the way serious gamer-types do. I play a fair amount of Marvel Puzzle Quest, and I’m good enough at it that I’ve won one event and placed pretty highly in others. I’m sure I could win more often if I put in the time, but my big win was kind of a special case because the top player got to add Kate Bishop to their roster. Y’all can appreciate why I needed to triumph.


  1. Sounds good! I started PROSPERITY like last year or something, but never managed to get back to it. I must remedy that!

    1. PROSPERITY is sooooooo good once you find the rhythm with it. Sooooo good.

  2. I was super glad that 1) I was warned in advance how gaming-heavy the book would be at the beginning especially and 2) Alexis Hall provided a glossary in the back. Without that I think I'd have had a hard time with this book. Alexis Hall is the best at feelings, isn't he? I'm so excited to read Pansies.