Annabeth Albert is one of the few authors whose books I’ll pick up without needing to know much about them, and I was keen to jump into Conventionally Yours, book one in her new True Colors series. I enjoyed it and looked forward to picking it up again after I’d had to pause, but I can’t say that it completely worked for me. I’m not sure if it’s a case of “it’s me, not you”; it reads more like a Young Adult (maybe New Adult?) book than anything else of Ms. Albert’s I’ve read, so maybe I’m not the target audience. The fact that I know nothing about the world of gaming, didn’t put me off; I actually enjoyed the parts that dealt with the strategies and game-play, and I liked the central characters, but the pacing drags a bit in the middle, and the leads often felt younger than their stated ages twenty-one and twenty-three.
Conrad Stewart and Alden Roth are part of a small group of gamers who’ve met regularly to play Odyssey for the last few years. The online vlog they contribute to, Gamer Grandpa, is run by a former maths professor, and is one of the most popular Odyssey vlogs; as well as analysing their in-person play, Professor Tuttle comments on the online version of the game and offers general game theory for the masses. Of the four players, Conrad, Payton and Jasper are friends, but Alden is still something of an outsider, even after three years of playing together, and the adversarial relationship between Conrad and Alden – especially Conrad’s particular brand of cocky trash-talk – is something of a draw for their audience. The two of them really don’t get on all that well; Conrad thinks Alden is a superior and stand-offish control-freak, while Alden finds Conrad’s casual attitude irritating, seeing him as a party-loving college drop-out who doesn’t really care about anything.
When the book opens, the Professor announces that he’s got them all complimentary tickets for Massive Odyssey Con West, the huge fan convention taking place in Las Vegas the following month. Gamer Grandpa has impressed someone at Odyssey HQ, and he’s been invited to sit on some panels, and they’ve all been invited to play in the tournament – a huge event with prize money and a seat on the pro tour up for grabs. Success in the tournament could be life-changing for both Conrad and Alden, but both of them are reluctant to commit at first. Conrad can’t afford the air-fare, and is surprised when Alden says that he doesn’t fly; but the Professor has it all worked out. They’ll make a road-trip of it; they’ll share the driving, make stops and personal appearances at game stores on the way, play a few hands of Odyssey with the locals, see the sights… it’ll be fun.
Of course even the best-laid plans go awry, and an accident and family emergency leave Conrad and Alden on their own, on what looks set to be an uncomfortable journey. Except that their enforced proximity soon engenders a surprising friendship and affords them the perfect opportunity to start to lower their defences and realise that they’ve completely mis-read each other for three years.
Conrad and Alden are engaging characters who are easy to root for, and their antagonists-to-lovers plotline is fun to read. Conrad is the sort of guy who uses sarcasm and bravado to hide his inner vulnerabilities, and his story is a heart-breaking one – all the more so perhaps, because it’s not an uncommon one when young people come out to unsympathetic, conservative parents. He perceives Alden as incredibly lucky on that score; Alden lives with his two moms, and his queerness has never been an issue, but as Conrad learns more about him, he starts to see that just because Alden never had to hide his sexuality from his family, his life is far from perfect. Alden’s high-achieving moms have pretty much mapped out his life and are trying to force him to make decisions he’s not ready for; he’s socially awkward and has anxiety issues, and reading the part where he talks about his neurodiversity and explains how desperately his moms have tried to find a label to fit him – whether it be Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Personality Disorder or any other disorder – and how he never feels like they see him, was really affecting. Even more affecting is Conrad’s complete acceptance of him:
“Neurodiverse or not… You’re just you. Just Alden. It’s who you are. Changing any of it isn’t necessary.”
The gradual realisation that they’re actually attracted to one another (and have been for a while) is awkward and sweet, Alden’s inability to refer to sex as anything other than “that” is cute, and I liked the honesty and trust they showed to each other. They talk about things that are difficult for them to talk about, sharing their fears, their hopes and their dreams with someone else for the first time, and I also liked the way Ms. Albert has them incorporating the experiences and lessons learned from the trip into their game strategy.
Conventionally Yours is an easy, absorbing read, and Annabeth Albert clearly knows her stuff when it comes to the gaming portions of the story. The writing and characterisation are strong, both protagonists are attractive and complex and I enjoyed getting to know them – but even so, something about this book didn’t work quite as well for me as I’d hoped. The slow pacing in the middle does allow for the relationship to develop and for us to get to know Conrad and Alden as they get to know each other, but on the other hand it is slow, and while the romance is front and centre, and there’s no doubt about their mutual attraction, it all seems a bit low-key. For anyone wondering about the sensuality rating, the sex scenes are pretty much fade-to-black (which works for the tone of the book) which is one of the reasons I wondered if this is YA (it’s not categorised as such at Amazon). So I’m on the fence. There are a lot of good things going on – the representation (Alden is Jewish as well as gay and neurodivergent, Payton is non-binary) is well-done, the gaming sections are interesting and, towards the end, surprisingly exciting! – and the romance is really sweet. There’s definitely an audience out there for this book and others like it, but I’m just not sure it’s me. So I’m offering a qualified recommendation; I suspect it won’t meet the expectations of some of the author’s fans, while others will love the change of pace. I’m somewhere in the middle.