Team Phison Forever by Chace Verity. 2019.
Content Warnings for review: discussion of abusive family, familial estrangement, depression
Team Phison Forever gave me so many feelings. It was rather different, and substantially more angsty when compared to Team Phison, which I also really enjoyed, as a fluffy cozy grumpy/sunshine geek foodie romance between two queer gamers. This is something else altogether, a romance about staying together instead of getting together. One that’s told from the POV of a sunshine character who is not feeling so sunny, because he’s dealing with complex familial dynamics and depression.
Tyson grabbed hold of my heart, hard. I felt so deeply for him, connected with him. Being inside his POV as he grappled with all of these triggering and intense disruptions to his happiness with Phil made my heart ache. Over and over, as he gets hit with all this hard stuff, and does the only thing he knows how to do: isolate to protect himself. I wanted to shake him and hug him at the same time, because I knew that the people in his life could help, if he would just reach out, but I also got why he didn’t, why he couldn’t. This is one of those books where the limited POV makes it work very well and at the same time you kinda want to shake the POV character for all the things he cannot see/doesn’t get. I was really impressed with how well that worked in this story.
I really loved that while we still had glimpses of the grumpy/sunshine duo of book one, there was a lot of room for the sunshine character to be…not sunny at all, in this book. I do think that it added layers of complexity to book one and made me want to reread that book to see glimpses of this Tyson in it. This book is almost as geeky as book one and is food-centered but from a completely different POV and set of food tastes. I think it hits the mark on both fronts.
Both of the MCs are white queer men (Tyson is bi, Phil is gay). The two most significant secondary characters are people of color: Tyson’s Latinx BFF Manny, and his sister Judith, who is Black. I really liked both of these secondary characters, and was glad that they felt like their own people with their own motivations and needs, and not just there to serve the narrative. (At least they did to me, as a white reader.) In general, I appreciated the secondary characters in the book, and fell hard for Tyson’s co-workers Kade and Alishia, who also had terrible relationships with their families. I was glad for the inclusion of these two trans characters–Alishia is a trans woman and Kade is non-binary and uses xie/xer pronouns–and hope they get their own romances someday. I loved that Tyson was working in such a queer and trans supportive workplace, and had them in his life. Even the minor characters we only get glimpses of–like his old boss who brags about his ingenious bacon apple pie–felt like they were drawn with complexity and added some lightness. And Judith’s kids were adorable with their Dinotrux obsession; the moments with them were lovely. In general, it felt like the secondary characters helped buoy up the story, reminding me as a reader that although Tyson felt very alone, he actually had a bunch of folks in his life who cared about him.
This is not an easy book. The reader is inside the POV of a character who is really struggling, with trauma and depression and fraught family situations, a character who is feeling incredibly alone. It’s intense to sit with him as he goes on this emotional roller coaster. Tyson found out that he has a sister he never knew existed, and it was both wonderful to connect with her and also really hard because he was rejected by his abusive family, by the father they share. I really liked his sister Judith as a character; she felt like a whole person, not a plot device, which I appreciated, especially as she was the only Black character in the book. I liked that they bonded over their geekiness, that was really sweet.
Tyson struggles with what family means, what the realities of family have been to him and are now, that is the center of his arc, and that was the aspect of the story that made me cry. Centering the POV of a character who was so lost and isolated (not reaching out even though he had a support system) made for an especially intense high stakes reading experience. It was really effective, and it made me care about Tyson ferociously. I wanted to protect him and hug him and draw him out so he felt less alone. I adored him to pieces. The arc is beautiful, hard-won, and complex, and it has a very satisfying resolution that made it feel well-worth riding that emotional roller coaster. I am truly impressed that this arc worked at this length, and I think it was the limited POV that made it happen. Tyson’s heart is so tender and beautiful and seeing him work through this was really lovely for me, as a queer reader who is also estranged from family.
Most queer romances with storylines around familial estrangement and potential reconciliation do not work for me because of the way they frame the estrangement, the reconciliation, or both, or because of the role it plays in the story. This is especially the case for queer holiday romances with this kind of subplot. Team Phison Forever spoke to my estranged-from-family queer heart. It resonated deeply, and held the reality of this kind of experience with complexity and nuance. There are no quick fixes or simple feelings here, its a tangled mess wrapped into a web of trauma and that made it feel real and resonant.
(Spoilers, highlight to read.) The way Tyson’s newly discovered sister responded to the news of the estrangement felt incredibly realistic to me, and it meant a lot to see that on the page, and to see her take responsibility for her actions afterwards. The reality that well-intended family might try to force or surprise reconciliation between estranged family members is so rarely framed as the betrayal that it truly can be, and I was incredibly grateful that this was framed that way. Just as I was also deeply grateful that it didn’t resolve into reconciliation, that we get to see Tyson set firm boundaries around that. This is one of the few queer romances I’ve read where there is familial estrangement and an attempted reconciliation that does not resolve into reconciliation, and I treasure it so much for that, alone. It also really holds the complex mixed and intense feelings that come with these kinds of things in a way that felt so caring and careful. It felt like a balm, to read this.
Team Phison Forever is one of my most favorite holiday romances of all time because it holds the nuanced reality of familial estrangement and also still feels like a holiday story that honors chosen family deeply. Exactly what I want from a queer holiday romance. It’s a great companion to Her Christmas Cookie by Katrina Jackson, which also holds both of those things particularly well, and also centers an existing relationship. I would recommend Handmade Holidays by ‘Nathan Burgoine for this as well.
(Edited to add 5/9/19) I realized that I got caught up in talking about Tyson’s arc and didn’t speak as much about the romance arc. I really liked seeing Tyson work through things and come back around to wanting to continue to build with Phil. I especially appreciated how Phil both respected Tyson’s reluctance to talk about it and really made room for him to do so. I liked that Phil got that when Tyson was triggered he might pretend that things were okay when they weren’t, and didn’t get upset about that. I adored how sweet Phil was under the grumpiness, how certain he was that Tyson already had chosen family that loved him, and I loved that he is there to catch Tyson when things get bad. It felt really romantic to me, those aspects of the story, and the happy ending was super sweet and hopeful in a way that felt like such a warm hug after the roller coaster.
- Fat bisexual man MC with depression and trauma.
- Older gay man MC.
- Non-binary queer author.
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
MC with depression. Detailed references to mental and emotional abuse. Estranged family. Non-consensual attempted reconciliation with estranged family. Emotional fallout from discovering a hidden family member. Abuse targeting a mentally ill person for being mentally ill. Brief references to physical abuse, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. References to deaths of parents/caregivers. Alcohol consumption as a way to deal with bad feelings. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: ARC from the author
- I am friends with the author on Twitter and was in an online writing group with them.
- All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.
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