Season’s Change is the début novel from Cait Nary, a sports romance set in the world of professional hockey that follows veteran (at twenty-four!) player Olly Järvinen and rookie Benji Bryzinski through a hockey season as they go from roommates to friends to lovers. It gets off to an incredibly strong start and I was utterly captivated by the characters and their UST-laden and slightly angsty slow-burn romance, but around the two-thirds mark, things began to slow down and became repetitive. Had the book ended as strongly as it began, it would have been an easy DIK, but as it is, I had to knock the grade down for a number of unresolved issues and most of all, the way what had been such a promising romance limps along to a not-completely-satisfying HFN.
When we meet him at the beginning of the book, Olly is a mess. He’s been playing professional hockey for three years, and is just starting out with the Washington Eagles, but weeks of not sleeping and not eating properly on top of extreme anxiety and stress following an incident at his previous team in Minnesota mean he’s not in a good place physically or mentally. He’s determined to push through it though, to make a fresh start and leave the past behind, to – as his Dad has so often said – toughen up, and focus on getting his career back on track.
Benjy is twenty-one and all he’s ever wanted to do is to play hockey. He might be “just a dumbass from Duncannon, Pennsylvania”, but he’s bright, he’s keen and he’s determined to make the most of every minute of his rookie season. He hits it off with his teammates straight away, although his new roommate Olly Järvinen takes a bit longer to warm up to him.
Season’s Change is a friends-to-lovers story which, as I said at the beginning, starts extremely well. Olly has some serious issues to deal with, which the author reveals gradually to have stemmed from a homophobic roommate and coach in Minnesota who bullied and assaulted him when they found out he was gay. By this point, he’s absolutely terrified of anyone else finding out about his sexuality, and he fervently believes he can’t be queer and be a hockey player, so he’s decided he’s got to put that part of himself on the back-burner until he retires. It’s been fairly easy to do that; despite spending so much time around well-built attractive men, he’s never been tempted to hook up with any of them… until now. Benjy is all sunshine to Olly’s gloom; he’s honest and good-natured and funny (and hot) and becomes a very good friend, someone Olly can turn to and lean on when he’s at his lowest. But Benji is straight – and even if he wasn’t, he’s off limits.
The progression of Olly and Benji’s relationship in the first part of the book is very well done. Their friendship is superbly written and their romance is a fantastic slow-burn with lots of longing and chemistry and sexual tension that leaps off the page. I loved it.
But things start to fall apart in the last third of the book – which means it’s difficult to talk about specifics because we’re into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best! The biggest problem is that the romance, having been built up so beautifully in the first part of the story, stalls and doesn’t go anywhere until the very end. There’s too much repetition and extraneous detail taking up word-count that should have been used to bring the romance to a satisfactory conclusion instead of the flimsy HFN it gets at pretty much the last minute. In a book of almost 400 pages, there should have been plenty of time for the author to get the leads together and show us a happier Olly doing a better job of managing his mental health and realising he can have all the things he’s dreamed of having with Benjy. We don’t get to see them navigating life as a couple and truly being themselves, and we don’t get the chance to relax and be happy for them before the book is over. Given everything they go through, they don’t get the ending they deserve, and that’s a crying shame.
It bothered me that when Olly and Benji finally start a sexual relationship, Olly thinks it’s just a case of them ‘helping each other out’ and that Benji is straight and will eventually find a woman he wants to be with. He never tells Benji he’s gay – in fact, they never talk about what they’re doing at all – and I found it hard to believe that Benjy never once wonders if Olly is queer. And Benjy talks about having fooled around with guys before and having had threesomes with girls and guys, but it never occurs to him that he might be bisexual until the very end.
Speaking of threesomes… There’s one in the book, and it felt like a scene of dubious consent. Benji brings home a woman and convinces a very sad, very drunk Olly to have a threesome (MFM – she blows Olly while Benjy fucks her.) Olly has never been with a woman in his life and has never wanted to, and is so distressed in the morning that he immediately throws up and spends days after avoiding Benji. I didn’t see the point of it and it felt unnecessary cruel given everything Olly is going through. It made me really uncomfortable.
Other smaller niggles. This is a sports romance, and I know that hockey fans will probably disagree with me, but there is too much hockey stuff in the last third of the book. I freely admit I’m not into sports (and know next to nothing about ice hockey) BUT my issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of sports-related detail – I accept that a story built around hockey will have stuff about hockey in it! – it’s that it uses valuable word count that could instead have been spent building a proper HEA for Olly and Benjy.
Probably going along with the ‘hockey stuff’ is the ‘bro speak’; maybe it’s accurate, but I found it irritating (and sometimes incomprehensible!), and the same is true of Benjy’s tendency to, like, use the word “like” in every, like, sentence.
Assigning a final grade to Season’s Change was difficult. The first two-thirds is DIK standard, the central characters are engaging and their romance – up until they start having sex – is gorgeous and frustrating and they have chemistry by the bucket-load . The author creates a wonderful team camaraderie, the writing is strong overall and Olly’s anxiety and fears are presented skilfully and sympathetically. The complicated family dynamics are well done, too – Olly has one of those pushy ‘hockey dads’ who is always on at him to do more and do better, and Benjy’s sister is in a toxic relationship and can’t or won’t admit it. This plotline doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but that feels realistic and I liked the way Ms. Nait handles this complex situation.
But while Season’s Change has a lot of really good things going for it, the final third and the ending drop down into C territory, so I’m going with a low-end B overall. It’s worth checking out if you’re into hockey romances and looking for a new author to try, but I can’t recommend it without reservations.