I was charmed by the interview with Alexis Nedd that Afoma at Reading Middle Grade did, and extra excited when I won her giveaway. The book did not disappoint.
Don’t Hate the Player
by Alexis Nedd.
Giveaway copy won from Afoma at Reading Middle Grade.
When they were young, Jake met Emilia at an arcade birthday party – the only person he’d ever seen beat his high score at his favorite video game. But though they ran into each other at the arcade a couple more times over the years, they never really got to know each other outside of the arcade.
Now it’s high school. Emilia is a junior living a very full double life. During the day, she’s one of the popular girls, a star on the hockey team with a killer fashion sense, an amazing college portfolio binder, and a universally lusted-after boyfriend. She may look like she has it all, but success is hard-won and necessary – as a Puerto Rican, she has to be the best to get anywhere at all. She’s also agreed – against her better judgement – to run as vice president on her best friend’s school council run.
At night, though, Emilia is an elite player of the fantasy video game Guardians League Online and a new member of one of the top local teams, Fury. Neither her parents nor her best friend know anything about this passion. With that many things packed into her schedule, it’s no wonder that things quickly start falling apart – with the key election dates lining up clashing with the newly announced Guardians in-person tournament.
Jake, whom we see both in his own viewpoint chapters and in group chats with his game team and Fury’s rival team, Unity, is clearly a sweetheart. He has issues of his own – not just the secret crush he’s had on Emilia for years, but also parent and self-confidence issues. The group conversations, though, are where we really see the difference between the in-game support. Emilia is the only girl on Team Fury, which barely accepts her, and has been keeping her gender a secret online for the past several years. Team Unity, by contrast, has not only a lot of gender diversity, but also a caring, friends- and fun-first attitude.
This is a romance by the cover, so we’re expecting to enjoy Emilia and Jake’s slow development towards romance. We also get a lot of personal growth, especially from Emilia as she’s forced to stop compartmentalizing her life, improving her relationship with her friends and parents as she does. And while I had trouble keeping track of all the gaming acronyms, I really did enjoy the scenes set in the fantasy world of Guardians League Online, which underscore Jake and Emilia’s love of the game despite the opposition they’ve faced playing it.
This would pair naturally with SLAY by Brittney Morris, or Warcross by Marie Lu for high action in real life paired with the video game adventure.