Title: Game On, Game Over
Author: Chris Quinton
Publisher: Manifold Press
Buy link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Genre: contemporary m/m romance
Length: Novella (160 pages)
Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
A Guest Review by Feliz
Summary Review: This wasn’t the book I expected it to be, but still a well-written, enjoyable, and satisfying read.
The Blurb: John Jones, aka Aidan Whittaker, a negotiator with MI6, is currently on assignment in Tajikistan, close to the Afghanistan border. Overtly on a University-run archaeological site, he’s covertly brokering a deal with local tribal leaders. His undercover mission is complicated by the arrival of a couple of Americans; journalist Brent Babcock and his photographer Scott Landon. The two men are there to document the ancient Silk Road, but when Babcock gets wind of a hot news story, he starts asking awkward questions.
Scott Landon is a different kind of trouble for John. Fourteen years John’s junior, gay and single-minded, he wants into John’s bed. Not being prepared to jeopardize his operation, John rejects him, despite being drawn to the younger man. But then events around them spiral out of control.
The Review: The blurb sums up nicely the first third or so of the book. However, it’s also a bit misleading, since this book is separated in two parts, with the second part very different from the first.
Part one is set in Tajikistan where MI6 agent Aidan Whitaker, as Professor John Jones, is the assistant director to an archeological excavation of a former silk road karavanserai. Both Aidan’s covert and overt operations run quite smoothly until journalist Brent Babcock comes along and pokes his nose into other people’s businesses. While Babcock is an arrogant prick of the first order, his photographer Scott Landon is anything but.
Apparently, Scott is infatuated with Aidan/John right from their first encounter. Although the attraction is mutual, Aidan can’t afford to act on it from fear of messing up his covert mission. But Scott is hard to resist. Easygoing and sociable, Scott quickly makes friends among the excavators, offering his help and generally making himself useful until convenient opportunities (and, though completely unawares and unwittingly, Brent’s shenanigans) pave the way for him into Aidan/John’s bed.
Unfortunately, the events take a turn to the negative shortly afterward, which eventually leads to the excavation site being closed and the excavators being evacuated while under heavy fire. By the time everyone has safely arrived in the next big city, Aidan/ John has disappered and Scott thinks him dead.
Part Two starts with a brief outline of Scott’s life after his Tajikistan experience. Even though his life is anything but uneventful, those few short days with Professor John Jones remain a vivid memory, and Scott finds himself still mourning the loss of the man who has come to mean so much to him.
Then, about a year later, Scott finds out that John might perhaps still be alive and, with the help of his friend Jodi, sets about finding him. What he finally unearths is a grumpy recluse, a history professor and freelance writer living in rural England
“…in a small community that on one level was so quintessentially English it ought to be preserved under a dome in perpetuity.”
This calls the tune for the second part of the book, which is set in Avebury, a small village near Oxford that has a pub, a general store, a stone circle and some juicy local legends. It is in Avebury where we get to watch Scott’s very own quirky m/m variation on “The Taming of the Shrew” as he goes about befriending and courting Aidan with singleminded determination.
Aidan, now retired from MI6, can’t believe that Scott really wants more from him than the casual sexual relationship they had back in Tajikistan. To Aidan, it has always been more than just sex, and he’s still hung up on the way Scott left him back then. From fear of having his heart broken again, Aidan spares no effort to push Scott away. It’s anyone’s guess who will prove the more stubborn in the end.
This book in its entirety wasn’t quite what I expected from the blurb. Part one was fraught with tension in every aspect, moving along at a fast pace. Okay, the setting was perhaps a little romanticized, but not so much as to appear unrealistic, and the rivalizing tribesmen’s knives and bullets were certainly real enough. I liked the descriptions of life at the archeological site and the way this emphasized John/Aidan’s professor persona. He was very believable as adept yet half-hearted spook, and his ready retirement when he had the opportunity was only logical.
The romance fit the setting just fine with its surging, adrenaline-fueled passion. What suffered a bit during the first part were the other characterizations, the secondary cast’s as well as Scott’s, but the latter is remedied as we get to be in Scott’s head more often during the second part.
I had a few small issues with this book too:
After the fast pace of the Tajikistan part, the book grinds to an almost full-stop once the plot focuses on Avebury. As we see Aidan through his days (the highlights of which seem to be his daily skirmishes with the neighbor’s cat), the story starts dragging. In regard to Scott, Aidan ponders over the same hangups on and on. When he asked himself for the umpteenth time what Scott could possibly want with him, I even found myself asking the same question. The way Scott tracked Aidan down might have come across as stalkerish, but it actually didn’t since Aidan needs to be pushed towards his own luck.
And the setting? If there was one cliché missing about what I always thought of as “typically heart-of-the-country English”, I didn’t notice it. Cozy cottages with open fireplaces, hedged back gardens with flowering white lilas, roses-covered potting sheds, nosy neighbors, standing stones, sheep and crows, a pub rife with gossip – all check, down to the human extras populating the scene. It worked, though – the setting was perfect for Aidan’s and Scott’s slow reunion. It was skillfully written, too, with just the right amount of self-deprecation and humor to keep it from turning into a parody. What had started as a fast-paced action-adventure turned into a sweet and wholly satisfying romance, and I closed the book with a sigh and a smile.