Desert Isle Keeper
Strong Signalis the first novel from authors Megan Erickson & Santino Hassell, and this collaboration is damn good. Happily, this is also the first in a series by the pair called Cyberlove. Writing in collaboration seems to mellow Santino’s usual gritty, cynical angle on love and sex somewhat, while adding a little raunch to Megan Erickson’s writing. Having two very different authors works perfectly with the structure of this novel; the main characters are separated for a lot of the story, so we have two first person narratives alternating throughout.
Garrett is an army mechanic in the last nine months of his deployment in Afghanistan and after eight years, he doesn’t intend to re-enlist, this last tour having convinced him it is time to get a civilian job. Garrett is also a gamer, and he has spent a lot of money on his laptop ensuring he can indulge in style. Even with the bad reception on the base, Garrett spends all his downtime playing Fallen World Online. Although, he has the occasional sexual encounter with another soldier, he schedules his work so he can be around for in-game events online based on the East Coast of America.
During one such session, he is thoroughly beaten by an ‘Orc’ who does a victory dance over him on screen. Garrett is furious and finds out who is behind this ‘Orc’. The gamer turns out to be a slim, lithe ex-dancer called Kai, who has a live gaming stream on ‘Twitch’, and is quite the legend in the gaming world. Garrett feels more annoyed that he has been humiliated by a hot little twink. In front of his thousands of viewers. He begins by leaving sarcastic comments on Kai’s chat, but he when he clicks on a link that shows Kai has also made money in the past from online porn, masturbating for the camera, Garrett begins to become obsessed with him.
While Garrett’s true personality is revealed slowly – he seems just a horny, gruff, musclebound army hunk – Kai is adorable, intelligent and cute from the beginning. He lives his life online, and makes good money testing early copies of games and getting donations or subscriptions from his thousands of online fans. The authors don’t shy away from the problems that online relationships can cause. They also touch on the problems relating to virtual anonymity and the dangers of grooming activities. Through Garrett and Kai, the reader is made aware of the differing attitudes on-line celebrities can have towards their fans and vice-versa. There is no need for potential readers to have previous knowledge of gaming, which may have been an issue if handled by two less confident authors.
Both these authors know how to write beautifully nuanced, three dimensional characters. As Garrett falls in love, his lovely, protective, complex nature is revealed, and he became my favourite character. As someone who spends a lot of my life online, Kai’s story is a little disturbing on occasion. It is convenient to buy groceries online, talk to friends online, and if you find a way to earn money online, too, it is easy to see how social phobias can develop.
Kai suffers from social anxiety and panic attacks. When we meet him, his gaming stream and beta testing are providing him with a good living, although sadly, it has facilitated an increase in the severity of his disabilities, too. The representation of his mental illness is sensitive, accurately portrayed and very touching to read. Megan Erickson has a track record for writing sensitively about mental illness. In the excellent Focus on Me she tells an exemplary story of a young man suffering with anorexia. Strong Signal – and the construction of the issues confronting Kai bear the hallmarks of her work.
When Garrett and Kai’s relationship transfers from virtual to real life, this does not mean the difficult part is over. There are more issues to overcome than expected, especially from Garrett’s PoV. I love the scene when Garrett surprises Kai on his return to the US; my emotions were all over the place. I think I fell a little in love with Garrett during that perfectly written scene.
There is a sigh-worthy epilogue – is there anything more adorable than a reticent, muscular man in love? Kai and Garrett have an ending I never thought I would see Santino Hassell write, and it works beautifully in Strong Signal. I made it a DIK because I missed the duo as soon as I finished their story, even though it felt perfectly complete. I thoroughly recommend everyone to read this novel – the first from what promises to be a wonderful partnership between these two authors.