4-4.5 stars - This is probably one of my favorite books of 2013 so far, mostly because it is so intriguing and different. It's like someone mashed up some anime sports manga with scary mafia and psychotic teammates and abusive pasts and (for right now) mild m/m references and the New Adult genre and mixed it all together into this crazy parfait that sounds odd but when you try it, was so good, and I couldn't stop eating it because I had to know what the next layer down tasted like.
What I liked: I didn't immediately attach to the main character of Neil, who you learn very quickly has a shady, scary past that he's running away from, but soon it was very easy to empathize with the fear that he factored into his daily life, and how he learned to always have his eye on the exits. The writer did a great job of having that fear and survival instinct color Neil's actions, so even as he was making a huge change in his "stay low--stay on the run" routine by joining Palmetto State University's Exy team (a made-up, but very popular sport that's similar to lacrosse), you could still see how his mind was working, and checking-off his various flight paths to safety if he needed it.
Neil's teammates are a mixed bunch of characters, but all very interesting and readable (and often with their own hidden motivations.) You have Kevin, the athletic star that is rising again from a crippling injury; psychotic Andrew who is glued to Kevin's side for unknown reasons and has to stay on court-appointed drugs to be allowed to play; Andrew's very apathetic twin Aaron; the twins' cousin Nicki, who has no problem leering at Neil, and there's their coach, who very easily recognizes all the signals that Neil silently gives off about having a deep familiarity with abuse and violence.
I also dug that for a (somewhat) m/m sports book, there were great female characters, both on the team, like their captain Danielle and the mysteriously sweet Renee, to their team doctor. It's a very mixed group of characters, some of who hate each other, but they were a very interesting group, and no one felt superfluous.
The story was really fascinating and surprising as you follow Neil into this new situation, where he battles between two things--the sport that he loves and being safe, and the path that he goes to try to obtain those two things is really readable and engaging. (This is definitely a book that kept me guessing.)
Heads-up: This is the first book in a trilogy, and it doesn't end in a terrible cliffhanger, but nor does it end neatly. It feels like the end of a really tough game for Neil, but he still has a season of games ahead of him, and a lot of potentialities that could go from awesome to terrible, so I'm assuming we'll see what happens in the next two books.
The good news is that book 2 The Raven King is already out, so you can jump right into that. The bad news is that book 3 is not out yet, but will mostly likely come out later this year.
Heads-up also that this volume is high on characters and interactions and development, but low-low-low on m/m romance. (Like, no romance at all.) You get some ideas of where things will lead, but nothing is set. Don't go into this thinking sexy times, because you will be disappointed. (For most of this, Neil doesn't come off as having sexual/romantic feelings at all--he's been too used to not having any connections, so much of this book is his understanding that he can maybe rely on others.) I didn't really miss it though, although what glimpses I started to see, I wanted to see more of, so I'm hopeful there will be more than brief "Was that? Could that be?" flashes in the next book.
What's really awesome? This novel, and yes, it's over 80,000 words, is free-free-free right now on Smashwords and Amazon. (And the sequel is a dollar.) The free is a great deal for such a good novel. Even with a few editing errors, I thought it was still a fab read.
At the same time, I totally think it's like the author is pimping the first hit of her drug to you for free, because once you dive into that crazy sports-mafia-psycho-teammate world, it's going to be really hard to refuse the next hit.
Really recommended, especially if you're okay with sports, college kids, and a really-really slow burn. Definitely a fresh, interesting read.