Out of Character
Annabeth Albert’s Out of Character, the follow up to last year’s Conventionally Yours, features two guys who were firm friends until high-school, when expectations and peer pressure ended their friendship. It’s a cute, (former) friends-to-lovers romance featuring two likeable characters who have a lot to learn – and re-learn – about each other as they reconnect through a quest to track down some rare Odyssey game cards.
We met Jasper Quigley in the previous book, in which he was due to accompany his friends and fellow gamers Alden and Conrad to Odyssey Con West, a massive fan convention in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Jasper had to pull out at the last minute because his younger sister April – who suffers from a rare immune system disorder – became seriously ill and he had to return home. Several months later finds Jasper, who is in his final year of college, still working at a local game shop, making regular appearances on the Gamer Grandpa vlog, and also spending time volunteering in the children’s ward at the local hospital, where he and a group of friends cosplay various Odyssey characters and play games with some of the kids there. When the book opens though, he’s down a prince for the next visit – Prince Neptune to be specific – one of the most popular (if not the most popular) characters in the game and with the kids, and he’s running out of time to come up with a suitable replacement.
Fortunately, however, Jasper’s prince does, indeed, come. Unfortunately, it’s in the form of someone he’d hoped never to have to have much to do with again, his former best friend, Milo Lionetti. Milo’s Italianate good looks make him a perfect prince – on paper at least, because his long ago behaviour towards Jasper wasn’t at all princely.
Jasper and Milo grew up together and were practically inseparable, but that changed when they went to high school and Milo got picked for the soccer team. Wanting a place at the cool kids’ table – and not wanting to be singled out for his choice of a nerdy gay boy as his best friend – Milo turned his back on Jasper and watched from the sidelines, saying nothing as the Jock crowd dished out insults to Jasper and anyone else who dared to be smart, nerdy or anything other than a vapid clone. Jasper made new friends and moved on, although he hasn’t forgotten what Milo did, or forgiven him for it. So Milo is the last person Jasper expects to be coming to him for help.
A few nights earlier, Milo had a bit too much to drink and ended up losing four of his older brother Bruno’s Odyssey cards, four cards which happen to be incredibly rare and worth thousands of dollars. Bruno is in the military and is currently stationed overseas; Milo can’t bear to have to own up to yet another screw up – he’s already caused his mother and brother enough worry over the last few years – and wants to replace the cards before Bruno’s next leave, which is a matter of weeks away. Jasper doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for him and at first, he wonders if he’s being pranked, but he soon realises that Milo is serious, and that his distress is real. So he offers Milo a deal. In return for Jasper’s help in tracking down the cards, Milo has to be Prince Neptune on their next cosplay session at the hospital. With absolutely no other option open to him, Milo agrees.
That’s the set up for what opens out into a charming and heart-warming story of two young men whose lives went in different directions finding their way back to each other. After the cosplay session, Jasper starts looking for the cards Milo needs, and the two of them end up searching various sites and online markets, solving puzzles, doing a treasure hunt and going to an Odyssey tournament together. To his surprise, Milo starts to enjoy the cosplaying and the visits to the hospital as well, and all the time he and Jasper spend together give them the opportunity to talk about what happened to their friendship and to get to know each other as the people they are now.
Jasper is an absolute sweetheart; intelligent, up-beat and generous of spirit, he loves helping people and is always on hand to crack a joke or offer support. But he chafes a bit at being the ‘sidekick’ – the dependable one who isn’t ‘the best’ at anything, and longs to be someone’s hero. Milo has had a tough few years; he went off the rails a bit after his father died and now sees himself as a screw-up who can do nothing right and is going nowhere. But although Jasper is initially suspicious of Milo’s motives, he quickly realises that Milo wants to change and do better, and I loved how his support and belief in Milo spur him on and help him to see that he’s capable of more than he’d believed. Milo grows an awful lot throughout the novel, and his redemption as a character and as a friend is very well done. I liked the neat bit of role-reversal here, too, with Jasper being the confident, outgoing one and Milo the quiet, artistic one who has, despite being a member of the ‘in-crowd’ been more alone than Jasper ever has.
The chemistry that hums between them is palpable, and their romance is sweet and full of genuine affection as Jasper helps Milo navigate his way through the newness of a relationship (with a lovely, subtle emphasis on consent) and there’s a real sense of give and take as they talk and listen and work through their issues together – and Jasper becomes Milo’s hero and Milo embraces his true self and learns to forgive himself.
As I said in my review of the previous book, I know nothing about gaming and it’s not something that has ever really interested me, but Annabeth Albert writes about it here with such affection and authority that she made me care about it because the characters care about it so much.
Milo and Jasper are well-rounded characters, and Milo, in particular, undergoes a tremendous amount of well-written and organic personal growth throughout the story. Out of Character is a low-angst, feel-good romance about second chances, being brave and being true to yourself and others, and I’m happy to recommend it.