Delay of Game
Grade : B-

Delay of Game is the second book in Ari Baran’s Penalty Box series of hockey romances, and it’s a complete change of tone and pace from their début, Game Misconduct. That book was full of raw edges, an angry, sometimes violent, antagonists-to-lovers romance in which the characters were struggling with addiction, trauma and self-destructive behaviour. Delay of Game is a gentler, much quieter book; that’s not to say the characters don’t face personal challenges, but it’s not so much a story about two people falling in love as it is the story of two best friends finally working out they’ve been in love for ages.

Nate Singer and Zach Reed have played for the Philadelphia Constitution for the last three years and have been besties for almost as long. Nate has played for the Cons for his whole career and has been a model player and team member – he’s now team captain – where Zach was traded after the powers that be at his former team got fed up with the constant flow of PR headaches that followed him wherever he went. Furious at being traded from a top flight, cup-winning team to one that’s been languishing at the bottom of the league for years, he wasn’t particularly gracious to Nate – who he felt was way too earnest – and wanted to focus on proving to everyone that he’s still one of the best players out there, no matter how badly he fucked up.

Then we skip forward a couple of years and meet a Zach who has cleaned up his act. He still likes to party, but is much more self-aware and has managed to keep himself out of the headlines for the wrong reasons. The Cons has gradually been clawing its way up the rankings and Zach firmly believes that this is going to be their year and is absolutely set on winning Nate a cup because he wants to do something for him that nobody else has ever done. (Already, we see it’s all about Nate and not just the team for him!) Nate has become the best friend Zach has ever had, and their teammates are, by now, used to their being a package deal during the season; one rarely goes where the other isn’t, and on the ice, their chemistry and ability to read each other makes them a force to be reckoned with.

[As an aside: The Cons has a female player on the team named Bee (Beatrice). I know next to nothing about ice-hockey, but this seemed very odd to me.Are there mixed hockey teams, or is it just a bit of wish fulfilment?]

It’s clear, almost from the start, that Nate and Zach are head-over-heels for each other but neither of them realises it. Zach is bisexual, but Nate has had no real reason to suspect he might not be straight – a broken engagement to his long-term girlfriend mostly sums up his dating history and it’s simply never occurred to him to question his sexual orientation. It’s only when he realises he’s attracted to Zach that some past thoughts and feelings start to make sense, things he’s never really given a great deal of thought to before.

Zach and Nate make a cute couple and I liked their slow awakening to the fact that their feelings for each other go way beyond friendship, but there’s too much reliance on miscommunication or misconception in the story. The first time they hook-up they’re both more than a little drunk, so when, the next morning, Zach wakes alone to discover Nate calmly making breakfast, he immediately assumes Nate doesn’t remember what they did and decides the best thing he can do is to treat Nate in the same ‘bro’ fashion as he always does. Nate reads this as dismissive, because of course, someone as hot as Zach hooks up all the time and with people far more attractive than Nate, so what was earth-shattering for him must’ve been something run-of-the-mill for Zach. Thankfully, the author doesn’t allow this misunderstanding to go on for too long, and after they (drunkenly) hook up again, Zach comes up with a reason for them to keep doing it. Each time they’ve done it so far, the team has won their next game, so why break a winning streak? They should keep on having sex for good luck! It’s clear they’re both desperate to find an excuse to keep this new aspect of their relationship going – and also that they both assume sex is all it can ever be, and that there’s a natural expiration date to this… whatever it is between them. *insert gif of me headdesking*. As they both, individually, draw nearer to the conclusion that what they’re doing isn’t ‘just sex’ and that definite feelings are definitely involved, their inability to just talk to each other causes another, even Bigger Mis at around the three-quarters mark, which goes on almost until the end of the book.

This is one of those books without much plot, which would be fine, if there was plenty of character and relationship development, but there’s not a great deal of either. Given Zach’s flame-out in the prologue, I was expecting to read about him sorting himself out and turning things around, but instead he’s done all that by the time we meet him again. He’s still trying shed the remnants of his bad boy reputation and struggles a bit with self-esteem when it comes to his intellect, but we don’t see any of his reformation or, more importantly, any of the development of his friendship with Nate. The only time we’re given any of their history is in expositional ‘remember when’ asides, and by the time we hit Chapter One, they’re already best friends; they care deeply for each other, they talk through things together – they’re a couple in all respects except for the sex! And Nate’s body dysmorphia, his largely untreated anxiety and occasional dark moods aren’t really explored; there’s one scene in which he kicks back with a joint during the one week of the year he can switch off and spend mostly stoned because it’s “the only way he could deal with the crushing anxiety and responsibility that weighed him down during the year.” But we never really see him in situations that would support that statement, we’re only told how he feels.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about Delay of Game, because while the writing is good, the characters are likeable and their mutual pining is awesome, I was frustrated because there was so much unfulfilled potential. Every time there was a reference to how Nate and Zach became close and came to trust each other, or about how they supported each other through difficult times, I kept thinking ‘that’s what this book should be about!’ It could have been an emotional story about people overcoming genuine challenges and reaching a well-earned but satisfyingly happy conclusion; instead it’s a nice enough story about nice enough people, but there are no surprises, nobody changes or grows and too much of it is based around misconception and miscomunnication. I liked – but didn’t love – it, so I’m offering a qualified recommendation. If you’re in the mood for something low-key and aren’t put off by the Big Mis, you might enjoy Delay of Game a bit more than I did.

Reviewed by Caz Owens

Grade: B-

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : November 19, 2023

Publication Date: 11/2023

Recent Comments …

Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :)I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres.And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments