Title ~ Strong Signal (Cyberlove #1)
Authors ~ Santino Hassell & Megan Erickson
Published ~ 15th February 2016
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
I was counting down the months until the end of my deployment. My days were spent working on military vehicles, and I spent my nights playing video games that would distract me until I could leave Staff Sergeant Garrett Reid behind.
That was when I met him: Kai Bannon, a fellow gamer with a famous stream channel.
I never expected to become fixated on someone who'd initially been a rival. And I'd never expected someone who oozed charm to notice me—a guy known for his brutal honesty and scowl. I hadn't planned for our online friendship to turn into something that kept me up at night—hours of chatting evolving into filthy webcam sessions.
But it did. And now I can't stop thinking about him. In my mind, our real life meeting is perfect. We kiss, we fall into bed, and it's love at first sight.
Except, like most things in my life, it doesn't go as planned.
*Strong Signal is a standalone, full-length novel with no cliffhanger*
“Strong Signal” is a story about an Orc and an Archer. No, it’s not a fantasy, it’s better - the story of two young men who could hardly appear more different, young men who meet in a massively multiplayer online game in which Kai’s Orc pounds the hell out of Garrett’s archer. To add insult to injury, the big green Orc does a victory dance over the Archer’s dead body.
Kai is a beautiful young man, a sensuous and brilliant young man who is not only a great gaymer (for those who don’t know, that’s a gay gamer), but earns a living from his own gaming channel, thousands of subscribers and the top game software companies who pay him to test, review and promote their newest offerings. He’s the Orc.
Where Kai is graceful, with huge eyes, and the smoothest skin, Garrett is a 6-foot-plus hunk of soldier, his hot body wrapped in desert camo, playing online games to take his mind off his endless third deployment in Afghanistan. He’s not in the line of fire – he’s a base mechanic, but that wasn’t true for his two previous tours. He’s relatively safe and terribly bored. Not quite an “out” gay man, he gets his relief servicing some of the supposedly-straight guys in his unit, guys so “straight” they literally fight over him. He’s tired of being the unit slut, tired of being tied down to the boring day-after-day job of maintaining jeeps, tanks or any other vehicle that requires his attention. Being the Archer takes his mind off his drab and lonely life.
Surprisingly, Garrett starts falling for the sweet former dancer who does live video chats every day in which his subscribers follow his brilliant moves on all the latest and greatest online games. They love this rare, gifted, out gamer, with the possible exception of the vociferous homophobes seeking a place to vent their endless bigotry (closet cases?). His mods keep the worst of the worst out of the channel, and Kai has managed, over time, to build a truly remarkable, accepting and positive world online.
Of course, the dour soldier and the beautiful, graceful young genius are destined to find each other and fall in love. That takes a fair amount of time, but that doesn’t matter, because Kai isn’t going anywhere, and Garrett is stuck in Afghanistan, whether he likes it or not. That’s the first half of “Strong Signal”.
In the second half, they finally meet, in person, but their real-world interaction doesn’t seem to bode well for the kind of future their online relationship suggested. It’s not that they’re not great together – they are. But Kai has one major secret he’s kept from Garrett: his long-term social anxiety has, in the last few years, morphed into full-blown agoraphobia, and Kai is terrified of leaving his apartment and of strangers anywhere in his life. He survives by ordering everything in, including food, drink, equipment, clothing, even the paint for his brightly-decorated apartment. Online, Kai has control, he can always pull the plug. In real life, he has none, and it terrifies him.
Despite that, their relationship continues to thrive. Their sex is hot, their affection grows deeper and more solid, and Garrett provides a loving, caring, understanding soul that wraps around Kai and gives him the first feelings of safety and happiness he’s known in years, perhaps ever. They’re perfect for each other. Garrett doesn’t have an abiding love for humankind, any more than Kai does. But he is much more functional. Garrett reacts with a sneer, a bit of snark and a clenched fist, where Kai responds by folding into himself, sometimes in a full-blown panic attack.
The boys love each other, but the cloud hanging over them throughout “Strong Signal” is how they can maintain and grow a relationship when Kai can’t leave his apartment and Garrett can’t find work in Philadelphia.
I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens, on your own, because that’s the true joy of this first-rate, beautifully-written and deeply-moving book. When I first discovered that Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell were going to write a book together, I was more than a little bit skeptical. Both authors are among my very favorites, but, like the boys in “Strong Signal”, I initially thought the co-authors’ work was so different that the they could never meld their disparate styles and characters. But once I read the book, I realized I was wrong. They both write beautiful, empathetic, damaged characters. Santino tends to write ethnic, rough young men, and Megan, more polished ones. That’s true, as far as it goes, but Santino also writes the beautiful, far-less-dominant partners those rough young men love just as Megan does. I think of her as less “edgy” than Santino, but she has written several impressively authentic psychologically-damaged characters, with deep insight into their afflictions and sympathy for their plight.
There’s one thing I particularly love about both writers – they have no compunction in writing needy characters, elegant characters, characters which might not generally be considered “masculine”, with complete indifference to assumed roles and dynamics. This book surprises the reader with the strength and insight of the supposedly “dependent” character, the one who doesn’t have the five-o’clock shadow or the big muscles. In books by both authors, these characters are often the speakers of truth and the object of unconditional love and lust for their partners. There’s something compassionate, respectful, poignant and liberating in that.
What can I say? “Strong Signal” is a match made in heaven – two extraordinary authors getting together to write a compelling, brilliant, deeply moving book. It is a great read and an extraordinary partnership. Miss this one at your peril!
Megan Erickson worked as a journalist covering real-life dramas before she decided she liked writing her own endings better and switched to fiction. She's a multi-published author with Avon, Berkley, and Entangled. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids and two cats.
Santino Hassell is a writer of queer romance heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences