Updated: Jan 12
By Alexa Sommers
I need to start this recommendation with a significant caveat. This story is fantastic but contains a particularly brutal rape scene.
I wanted to put this upfront before any ratings or trope listings because this might get a little long, and I didn't want someone to skim past and jump in, not knowing what they are getting into.
Tropes: **Rape in backstory** Multiple partners, Healing love, Nerd Love, Happily Ever After
Relationship: M/F, FFM, FF (Scant reference)
Kinks: Light Bondage, light impact play
I opened this review with what is essentially a trigger warning, just without the titling it that because trigger warning, like so many things, has been politicized in the worst way.
I'm heavily anti pedantry in all but a few instances. If you can understand what someone is saying enough to correct them, then communication has been achieved, and there's no reason to correct them. If they haven't asked you to be their editor, then just move along with your smug sense of superiority.
But I take the use of 'trigger warning' and 'triggered' seriously because the misuse has muddied the meaning. I would have liked some form of trigger warning for the beginning of the last book.
If you like to skip to the standard review and recommendation part now, click here. Otherwise, let's talk about PTSD and trauma for a little bit.
"Are you triggered?" "Trigger the libs," and various permutations on that confuse triggered with upset. A trigger, in this sense, is something that will set off PTSD.
Thanks to a nine circle's worth of hellish childhood, I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). A wiki-level understanding of CPTSD versus PTSD is that while PTSD can be linked to specific events, like a car crash, CPTSD is from long-term continued trauma over a period of time, like an abusive childhood. For a bit more detailed breakdown, go here.
I have several dozen triggers that don't "upset" me but give me full-blown panic attacks and flashbacks. I'll spare you the gory details, but mate a Lifetime Original Movie with POW stories, and you're getting close to what it was like for me growing up. When your parents are a sociopathic narcissist and a narcissistic sociopath, things are gonna go poorly. I experienced broad-spectrum abuse, though sexual abuse was not part of it ... maybe. (Things are really complicated when you grow up in environments of extreme gaslighting, but I don't experience many of the common manifestations of sexual abuse.)
Certain things related to all five senses can really fuck up my day in a significant way. Some of them seem obvious. Depictions of domestic violence can set me way back if I'm not prepared for them. That's a pretty obvious place for a (TW: Domestic Violence). But because there can be so many triggers, it's impossible to cover them all. There are certain songs I can't hear without getting a panic attack because they were the favorites of my abusers. So I don't expect someone to figure out that they need to put up a (TW: Early 90s male country singers' discography) for anything I might read or watch.
But there are some that I think should just be standard if they show up in something. That list includes but is not limited to things like domestic violence, rape, and suicide.
If I see a trigger warning about domestic violence, that doesn't mean I'm going to not consume that book, show, movie, etc. It means I know what's coming and, if I'm starting in a decent headspace, I can prepare for it and move forward.
Think about it like having a bad knee and being invited to go for a run. If you know it's going to happen in advance, you can prepare. You can stretch, take some prophylactic over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain killers, and put on a knee brace.
With an ounce of self-awareness, you may realize that today just isn't a good day for you to run, even if you have the chance to prepare. Maybe you recently twinged it a little, and it's still tender, or a low-pressure system is coming in, and you know that makes it hurt worse.
If you get the invite but didn't have time to prepare, you might be able to do that run and be okay. Or, it might be okay that day, and then you'll be in rough shape the next. Or, you can further injure yourself and maybe make it so you can’t run for a long time because your knee is too fragile now.
When it comes to Level Up, I was waiting for the rape back story reveal. There was a point where the "I don't date" had tipped from a possible personal philosophy to a trauma response. There were bits and pieces, and little bread crumbs left along the way. As soon as Suzie had a minor squick about Dillon holding her hands behind her back during sex, I knew exactly where this story was going. I knew I'd be getting a rape backstory. I was prepared for that.
[Put aside any jokes about BDSM now. BDSM is about consent.] I wasn't prepared for the level of detail for someone being tied up, beaten, and tortured. Unfortunately, that's a trigger for me. I didn't expect it. If I'm going to wring all I can from my bad knee analogy, I thought I was going for a walk and then found myself running. I was unprepared, and it hurt. A lot. I pushed through the pain, though, but not for long. (I'll get to that part in the full recommendation.)
Since indie authors all live and die by the algorithm, I have a philosophy for writing reviews. Unless something is deeply wrong with the story, I don't tend to write reviews on Amazon below four stars. Flagrant racism, deep misogyny, and irredeemable character's irredeemable quality going unacknowledged in the text are just some examples of when I stray from this pattern.
When it came to Level Up, I had reviewed all the other books in the series, and so when I had problems with the last one, I reached out to Alexa Sommers about it. We had a really great talk about my issues and why she made the choices she did. Before reading the series, I interviewed her for one of my Adult Content Creators' Corner profiles.
In it, she said, "Much of it is based on moments in my own life, interactions with my friends, and who I am. A lot of me comes out in that series."
This meant not just the sexy parts but the really rough parts. In our conversation, Alexa mentioned conflicting feelings about that scene, what she put in, and how long it took to write because she had to step away.
While our traumas aren't the same, I can understand the need to have your story told. I'm in the process of writing things down under my day job name, and it can be brutal, but there is something in penning it that some of us may find necessary. And hell, if it's our trauma, we might as well make a buck off of it to pay for our coping mechanisms.
My word choice for the tropes section was deliberate. The trope is usually listed as rape as backstory. There's a real problem with this trope. It's often used quite clumsily by people unsure how to build a female character with any kind of motivation, and sometimes personality at all.
But rape happens. Like a lot of severe trauma, while it doesn't define you, it does inform who you are. On the road to healing from massive trauma, there's a point where you understand how much of your personality is a trauma response. Cynicism, trust issues, low self-esteem sometimes masquerading as a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Trauma can stick with you. I'm approaching two decades out from the last time I experienced what caused my CPTSD. I still wake up screaming sometimes. I still get flashbacks. I have a startle response when touched without warning. While my personality is shaped by trauma, parts of me would remain if you stripped all of it out.
Suzie is the same way. She was raped. But that doesn't define her whole character. Nerdy. Smart. Caring. She formed a fantastic circle of friends. She's a fully realized character who had a traumatic experience that affects her.
This is a really long-winded way of explaining why I have issues with a sliver of this series, and I wouldn't want anyone else walking into it unprepared.
The Level Up series ticks off several boxes for me. Most of the time, I like story with my steamy. A scene may be smoldering, but if I don't have a reason to care about why the people are having hot sex, then it's just less hot for me. Level Up is a story that has salacious sex scenes in it.
It's got plenty of nerd love. I got to really like the characters. (Or absolutely hate those I was obviously meant to absolutely hate.) I'm actually a little sad to see them go—which is why I'll be picking up Alexa Sommers' Bonus Level books in the not too distant future. It's challenging to find an erotica book where you miss the characters when you're done.
I ended up identifying with our male and female leads for different reasons.
When it comes to Dillon, while my dance card was not near as full as his, the clueless nerd guy who goes from nothing to something very fast was a lot like how my life went in that regard. That feeling of "I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, but I'm just going to go with it because this is awesome" was something I felt on a personal level.
I saw parts of myself in Suzie. If you've been kicked in the teeth enough by life, it does a number on your sense of self-worth. You have to spend a lot of energy navigating the mental mind field of your trauma. And while no one can love you out of it, you can get lucky and find someone who helps you heal.
The story has a villain in the form of Randy Andy, A.K.A, the Regretable Hulk. Andy is pissed at Dillon because of his involvement in warning Suzie about his less than stellar relationship with consent. Dillon becomes the target of several beatdowns.
But while dodging and occasionally not dodging fists, Dillon is fucking his way through a small harem's worth of lovers. He's dating at least three and having casual hookups with a few more. It's a complicated dance for Dillon. As the story progresses, things start to tip from logistical issues of scheduling so many women into emotional entanglements.
Some of the women throwing themselves at Dillon are looking for serious, semi-exclusive, long-term relationships, which is something he's looking for as well.
The problem is that he has been enchanted by a green-and-pink–haired nymph who keeps saying she doesn't date. Dillon and Suzie have plenty of sex, but she keeps denying it being anything more than that. And while there are some issues with Dillon being a bit of a dipshit about it, he backs down when corrected by one of his few female friends he is not fucking.
While he starts shedding his other relationships to pursue Suzie's heart, some goodbyes are harder than others. Feelings are caught. Hearts are broken. As this winnowing process occurs, there are increased warning signs that things will get a little dark.
Pretty much as soon as Suzie had a squick about Dillon holding her arms during sex, I knew where the story was going. I knew we'd get to some form of rape backstory. I was not prepared for the level of brutality nor the amount of detail involved in her rape scene. (All rape is violent, which is why I chose brutality as the word to go with. Once it starts costing you internal organs, I need a word to quantify it.) I would have liked either some kind of trigger warning or glossing over some of the details.
Either way, there would have still been some severe tonal whiplash. Within the span of the second chapter, the rape is revealed to Dillon, and he moves right into a final farewell fuck with one of his lady friends.
As a reader, I wasn't ready to get back to erotic, kinky sex scenes after some really intense, very detailed trauma. And I judged Dillon for his choice. Even though the lady friend in question, Lexi, is hot, I didn't like his decision to bang her in a broom closet within 24-hours of hearing that the woman he loved was brutally raped.
Once that scene started, I had to put the book down for the evening because while it had been a day for Dillon, it had been minutes for me. I enjoyed the symbolism of him closing the door and walking away, but I had trouble with the timing.
A little more breathing room would have done wonders for me. But, once the third chapter starts, narratively, it got better. I still had trouble letting go of the rape scene. Which, considering the whole discussion of PTSD, seems slightly apt.
But the ending was beautiful. For what I hope are obvious reasons, I really like seeing the deeply traumatized characters get their happy ending.
If not for how chapter two of book five was handled, this story would be fives across the board. Still, with that understanding and warning, I’d recommend it. If you like to get to know people before they start banging, Level Up is a great read. I enjoyed it immensely.
And I will never look at a woman in pigtails the same way ever again.
You can purchase Level Up. on Amazon.