Recent Reading: The Book of Firsts by “Karan K Anders”

Okay, just to make sure we’re all caught up, “Karan K Anders” is actually Andrea K Höst. I know a lot of you already know that, but just to make sure.

So. The Book of Firsts is a departure for Höst. It’s a contemporary … romance. Almost romance. Sort-of romance. Near romance. Anyway, a contemporary novel that is at least romance-adjacent, with a lot of sex scenes. You can see why she might have decided to go with a pen name for a book that’s so different from her other works … although as far as that goes, she does have a rather wide range, doesn’t she? And All the Stars isn’t much like the Medair duology, for example. Except in terms of certain themes and some ways of developing the characters and pulling off occasional shocking plot twists.

Anyway! The Book of Firsts.

Here’s the description from Amazon:

Three boys, the ‘kings’ of the school. One cynical newcomer. An outrageous competition.
When Mika Niles overhears the details of “The Book of Firsts” she’s at first bemused, then scornful, then intrigued. Judging which of three very handsome young men is best at kissing, and…?
With no time in her final year for serious attachments, a series of lunchtime trysts is more than tempting – and an opportunity like this might never come her way again. But this light-hearted game is also a scandalous secret, and few can play with fire and walk away unscathed.

I wouldn’t have been interested if this book had been written by someone else, but first, AKH, and second, reviews suggested that some things about the story would probably appeal to me. That impression turned out to be a little misleading. Practically everything about the story appealed to me. Let me count the ways:

1. First, just to get this out of the way, the sex scenes aren’t too detailed, and in fact become less and less explicit as the story progresses. If a reader is really into the hot, steamy erotica of modern romances, they’d probably be disappointed. For me, lowering the steam quotient of the story was of course a plus. I didn’t skip or skim even a single scene. Good thing too, as the setup required a LOT of sex scenes throughout the story.

2. Second, although reviews and AKH herself refer to this books a “lighthearted” and “fluffy,” it’s not really all that light. The setup is intrinsically unlikely, sure, but Höst makes it (reasonably) believable. More important, there’s actually considerable emotional heft to the story. But this doesn’t come from the romance elements. Mika, the female lead and the sole pov protagonist, is a very (very) emotionally self-contained person and not at all given to any kind of angst. The relationship between Mika and the male leads is not the heart of the story, even though Mika drives a lot of the plot.

3. The above is probably one reason I’m having trouble categorizing this book as a romance, straight up. I’ve gone back and forth in whether I would call this book a romance. The story does follow some romance tropes. But the relationship at the heart of the story is definitely not the romance, it’s the friendship between the three male leads – Rin, Kyou, and Bran – who are indeed, as all the reviews indicate, complicated and well-developed characters. This friendship, incidentally, never once falters. This is not that kind of story.

Also, imo, the growing friendship between the three male leads and Mika is much more emotionally important than any romantic connection between them. In fact, you could plausibly define their relationship as friends with benefits and not actually romance. Any way you look at it, this is a friendship-centered story, not a romance-centered story. So I think I finally come down on the side of not-quite-a-romance.

I know some of you have read this story. Agree/disagree on this point?

Anyway:

4. There is not the slightest doubt that everything will work out. The good guys will be fine. The bad guys will get slapped down. In fact, this is a story that proceeds in rhyming couplets: AB AB AB:

A) A problem occurs.

B) The problem is quickly solved in a satisfactory way.

A) Another problem occurs.

B) This problem is also solved satisfactorily in short order.

A) A third problem occurs …

And so on. There is one problem that extends through a large portion of the book – who has it in for the male leads and why? – but as a rule, specific problems are solved in a brisk fashion rather than pushing the reader into extended tension. This is great! I mean, sure, it depends on your mood and what you want in a story. But I read this book when I was somewhat stressed and trying to pull out of an ongoing bad mood, and I can’t tell you how much The Book of Firsts improved my day. It was just so satisfying watching things work out over and over. Granted, Mika is likely to seem overly competent and emotionally controlled to some readers, but she was just what I wanted. So were the three male leads, for that matter. I get what people mean about the lack of edges or the overmaturity of the characters. I did think of them as young men and women, not boys and girls. They do think and act in very mature ways. But this totally worked for me.

5) Also, this goes without saying, probably, but Höst is just such a good writer in almost every way. Smooth, witty, with an occasional unexpected emotional punch. Probably a decade ago I said firmly that I was dead tired of male leads who were gorgeous AND rich AND brilliant, and yet here we are, because this story worked fine for me even though it has THREE male leads fitting this description.

I’m really glad this is book one of a series. That gives AKH three ongoing series, and I hardly know which sequel I’d like to see most. Also, I’d always take yet another story set in the Touchstone universe. In fact, out of curiosity, please vote:

1. The sequel to Pyramids of London.

2. The sequel to Starfighter Invitation.

3. The sequel to The Book of Firsts.

4. Something in the Touchstone world, maybe going on from “Snow Day.”

I think … I think, if I could pick one to come out tomorrow, it might be (2). But maybe not! I’m really looking forward to the epic family meltdown that is no doubt scheduled for the sequel to The Book of Firsts. I wouldn’t like that it if turned into an angst-fest, but seen through Mika’s eyes, with Rin and Kyou prepared to coolly face down the drama, I will love it. As for “Snow Day,” I dislike Kaoren’s brother Arlen. But maybe AKH can change my mind, and anyway, I like the new characters from the short story and would enjoy seeing more of them. In contrast to the above, I have no idea what the sequel to Pyramids will involve, so it’s hard to anticipate it in the same way.

Okay! I have the Shinn story collection here, but before I look at that, I think I’ll re-read The Book of Firsts.

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19 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Book of Firsts by “Karan K Anders””

  1. Pyramids. Easily my favorite, and the “Towers of the Moon novella in particular was worthy of its awards.

  2. I was hesitant to pick this book up for some of the same reasons you mentioned, but now I’m going for it! Low-angst plus solidly competent characters seems like just what I need right now.

  3. Starfighter. This is a gimme: I haven’t read either of the other two. Pyramids is on my kindle waiting for a rainy day; this one … your review makes me more likely to pick it up at some point, but the odds are still no better than fair.

  4. Well, I agree that there’s no need for more stories in the Touchstone world. I’m just always happy to see another one despite that. You know, you really need to read Pyramids of London! I want to know what you think of it!

    Mary Beth, I bet you will really enjoy The Book of Firsts.

    Pete, yes, “The Towers of the Moon” was a very good story in the Pyramids world.

  5. I liked this a lot (so much more than I expected to, too!) but I didn’t find it fluffy either. I associate “fluffy” with stories where I have more of an idea of where the story is headed and I have the enjoyment of anticipating that.
    I trusted that Höst would resolve things well but I really didn’t know what that would look like or how low angst the journey would be. Even though Mika is calm and level-headed about her arrangement with three boys, there’s a lot of potential for fraught complexities there and I was still worried somewhat on her behalf. I enjoy reading about Höst’s characters navigate stressful and potentially stressful situations — I wouldn’t reread her books as much as I do if I didn’t — but I still wouldn’t really call it fluffy.

    I think it IS a romance, or at least that it is open to be interpreted as one — the whole friends-with-benefits arrangement means the characters’ romantic feelings are less obvious to the reader, to each other and prehaps, to some degree, to themselves too.

    (I also think that there’s something romance
    -adjacent about the boys’ friendship, in the intensity of their commitment to each other and how they deal with their relationship with Mika…)

  6. Herenya, I think of this as a relationship that could move toward or into romance, but isn’t there yet. Perhaps I can’t quite consider a relationship a romance unless the characters themselves think of it that way, which I don’t really think they are, at least not yet.

  7. Loved it and can’t wait for the sequel. It’s so simply written, a little like the Touchstone trilogy in that way. I do wish the Silence of Medair had gone on forever.

  8. You always find the right words for what is to me a sort of ‘feel’ of the story, which I find it really hard to elucidate.
    YES, it’s the friendships! The relationships between the characters; between the boys as much as between Mika and each of the boys / all of the boys: by the end, she has become a part of their close friendship, and values that friendship with and among all three more highly than any of the boys separately.
    As we see it all through Mika’s eyes, it’s maybe a bit more hidden how the friendship of the boys, tight as it was already, deepens because of Mika, but it clearly does – because they talk to her, and about her reactions, it opens the door for them to have conversations about things they were trying to carry on their own.
    I’m not very familiar with ‘friends with benefits’, but that does feel like the exact right way to describe the boys’ relationships with Mika.

  9. Sequels…
    As Firsts is my most recent read, I’m still close to it and want to go on reading about these characters, and how they are going to navigate their families in the next book. So at the moment that’s in first place for me.

    I love Touchstone, and liked the new characters in Snow Day. A new story with these new main characters would be a nice fresh look at the world; though as Craig said, it doesn’t need more story.

    I liked Pyramids but am slightly less invested in that world (maybe because of time passed), though it is very interesting – and very complicated. It feels like it would need a longer series to explore that world, and with all the other things ms.Host is writing and doing,it feels like it might take a very long time and is less urgent to get to.

    The Starfighter has a somewhat similar sense, to me: there is much more than one sequel needed in this world. After finishing it, it felt as if the first book was sort-of a prequel, or a set-up of the whole story situation. Now only the select few gamers have survived and been taken into the game-world, the big story starts: how are they going to fight the Big Bad? When I finished reading it, I immediately wanted to go on to the next story in that series; but now time has blunted that edge I rather fear there will be at least one, maybe more, very dark ‘middle bits’ books needed before they get anywhere close to dealing with the Big Bad – or else the setup of how bad that Big Bad is would be overblown. And I don’t feel like reading dark books that cannot yet end well. So though the story really needs a continuation, I’m not really wanting it soon.

    Also, in Firsts you can really see the effects of the author’s pandemic hobbies of manga/anime and gaming influencing some of the story – there, it fits the story very well, as it doesn’t dominate the story itself. The three over-the-top cute, beautiful, rich, competent and accomplished guys with their close friendship bond despite different characters and interests, all three vying for the very competent, cool and calm girl with long legs and very long hair, and such handy and diverse contacts all over the world, in the elite school surroundings: a lot of those superficialities seem very anime to me.
    Ms.Host writes great relationships and characters in her own style, not the superficial negatives and extremes I associate with manga or anime, but the externalities in which the characters live did remind me of the way anime characters are pictured.

    In Starfighter, gaming is very important, and that is a world I’m not very well acquainted with. I play a few games with my nephews, but find books based on games tend to get stuck in a kind of repeating cycles leading up through ever-increasing ‘boss fights’ to some kind of epic showdown. That is not a pattern I find very interesting. But in that world, that seems like a likely pattern to develop.

    One older book of hers that I liked and would like a sequel to, is Hunting. That is a classical fantasy-adventure, which could lead to more semi-standalone classical fantasy-adventures, with a nice heroine exploring the world, visiting the country her partner came from – it feels simpler and more lighthearted than the more complicated recent series.
    At the moment, I find I really enjoy simpler and more cheerful stories.

  10. Thank you, Hanneke! I often remember a quote I read somewhere once: How can I know what I think until I read what I wrote and see what I said? Writing a review can really help me see what I think about a book.

    The phrase “friends with benefits” is used to mean “friends who have sex without wanting to be more than friends.” I don’t know how often that works out in the real world, but for a whole lot of the book, maybe the whole thing, it seems like exactly the right way to conceptualize the relationship between Mika and the male leads.

  11. Pyramids, easily, because I think it’s a masterpiece of its kind. Greatly enjoyed the others but they don’t seem as important to me.

    Re romance, I think the latter part of the book doesn’t make sense unless (the point is that) Mika is in love with the kings. She has had important friends before but never been in love. That’s the only explanation I can see for her otherwise anomalous lack of confidence that the boys will want to be with her after the competition. I can point to elements like the ugly duckling/Cinderella stuff at the end too. Thinking about Austen, I’d say Mika starts the novel too wrapped up in herself to be in love, and the boys (well, not Kyou, but later he needs rescuing) aren’t worthy of her love due to some flaw; and by the end they have cured each other. (Hmm, she’s not Emma – not relatively privileged, unless one counts talent and network, which maybe one should – or Elizabeth – witty enough but too coolly perceptive. Now I want a racy Regency novel from Anders.)

  12. Sorry for revisiting an older post, and for commenting too many times on the same things, but I just finished my third readthrough (this time taking notes) and want to put down some observations.

    1) It really is all about the conversations, getting to know one another. The setup of the circumstances in which they meet and talk just means that the conversations get a lot more personal, more quickly, than ordinary school-work talk with less privacy ever could.

    2) By the end they all love each other, though I don’t think it’s the same “falling in love” emotion for each and every relationship there. The guys all love each other without much of the sexual component, though they appear willing to experiment. They all three love Mika, and she loves them, with a strong sexual component to those loves, but still the flavor of the relationships is different. As the people are different, they connect in different ways. I’ll work that out in the next points.

    3) For now, they are group monogamous, if that is a word: each has committed (if not said aloud) to having sex only within the group; originally for health reasons, now also for emotional ones.
    This may well continue as long as they are at university, or it may change, either then or later, under pressure from society and trying to establish their careers, or one or more of them developing other relationships.
    I can see it holding for the next year or years, but probably changing after that. Once people are well established and sought-after in their careers it becomes possible to be eccentric and still continue one’s career, but for such young people that would be very hard, and near impossible in Mika’s chosen career which is dependent on people being willing to hire her or give her commissions. So that means the constant pressure of keeping things secret and being discreet, which is wearying, for the people involved and for the relationships.
    Society doesn’t really accept group marriages; even though established artist Anton Heyboer in the Netherlands lived with 4 women who everyone accepted as a sort of common-law wives who could speak for him, this was considered quite eccentric (and called a commune, not a harem), and after his death there were problems as the law does not recognise those kinds of relations for inheritance purposes.

    4) If they are going to change their relationship, making room for other pairings, they’d have to be very careful in how they handle it, both to avoid problems with the new girlfriend (emotional complications and secrecy-wise), and to avoid triggering the guys’ internal competitiveness to see who gets to “win” ‘keeping’ Mika, leading to jealousy or distancing (see their tension when giving her the opportunity to choose between them: she was correct in considering that such a choice, by her, would tear at their friendship).
    E.g. if Lania and Rin ever get closer, she would keep Mika’s secret, but how hurt would she be if she found out they’d been going together all this time?

    5) Rin has let Mika into his inner circle that he cares deeply about and doesn’t want to lose, but still appears capable of protecting himself emotionally by retreating – that remoteness is such a strong part of his personality, he doesn’t lose that even after becoming bonded with her as well as his 2 friends. If he can keep his friendships with her and the other two intact, and finds another person he can let into that inner circle and fall in love with (e.g. Lania, who he will see more of at Helios U because she’s Mika’s friend and Mika is his housemate), I could see a possibility of that relationship changing to really strong friends instead of lovers.

    6) Kyou and Mika have a similar sense of humor and playfullness, they really enjoy doing things together, and they care deeply for each other and support each other well when they need it, but I still get more of a sense of deep friendship enriched with the extra benefits of exploring their sexualities, rather than a lifelong sexual (group)monogamous commitment. More a soulmates sort of love than “in love with”. Though one of his last remarks, about wanting to build her a home, may mean I’m on the wrong track here.
    I think his very strong gamesmanship would find it hard to ‘lose’ her to one of his friends, but he is also the one who makes sure his friends stay strong friends, developing ways for them to handle conflicts and their competitiveness, looking out for all of them. I think his innate kindness is strong enough to deal with losing the sexual part of the relationship, if the friendships can stay strong. His kindness and interest in gaming might make him a better match for Lania than Rin, though she hasn’t looked at him in that light – and it would make both her and her parents a target for his family.

    7) Bran is deeply emotionally invested in what he does. It’s not always positively or single-mindedly, but he doesn’t do things without feeling strongly about them, even if what he feels most strongly at the start is conflicted.
    I think his being a virgin was part of that at the start – wanting to know what sex is like, experiencing it, after all the years of kissing and self-restraint with Meggan (no wonder he got so good at kissing!); but also not really wanting to be judged on it, his first time, compared to his (a bit) more experienced friends (no wonder he stood her up on that specific date the first time). It also implies that he feels, or was used to thinking, that for him sex implies a lifelong commitment. He had to learn to think around that to accept starting it with Mika, but I get the impression that deep inside, he still feels this way.
    Once he commits, he does so very deeply – from that point on, as the first of all of them, he is strongly opposed to the idea of their relationships ending with the end of the year. I don’t think he would be able to let her go now.
    He needs that deep loyalty and commitment from his partner in return for his own. Though he can share with his other friends, with whom he has an equally deep bond, I think it would break him if she showed that she loved one of his friends more deeply than him.

    Last) The reason they intend to give for renting her a room in their new studio, namely that she is the one who gave Kyou the advice that allowed him to get out of the financial trap his father and aunt set (which probably cost the family a lot of money), sets Mika up to become a target for their wrath and revenge.
    If they ever figure out what that advice was (find something they care about and raze it to the ground) and can get any handle on her at all, people like Lania & her parents could be in danger as well.
    Consequently, I do wonder what relation arrogant cousin Kade is to that aunt, and if he’ll be attending Helios U as well?

  13. Hanneke, I love your long and thoughtful comments, plus I’m really interested in how other people perceive the relationships in this story.

    I think you make a lot of good points. My personal bet, from about midway through the first book, is that Kyou and Lania may wind up together. I think Kyou would suit her better than Rin, and I think he could transition to a solid friendship with Mika. I hadn’t though particularly about Bran not being able to let go, but I think that is true and could be a very important point of conflict later.

    I hadn’t thought of these rich and powerful families targeting Lania. I do think that if they try, given the way the problems in the first book are handled, they will really regret trying that. I think they will get thoroughly singed and learn to keep their hands off their sons and their sons’ various significant others.

    This may be the first time in my life I find “significant other” to be a really useful term.

  14. Yes, significant other works well as a descriptor for these relationships by the end of the story. Friends with benefits works for at least half the story, once they get beyond a convenient arrangement and start to become real friends, but by the end at least some of them have become more intense than seems implied in that label.

    I did notice several times where Mika’s possessive instincts are roused by Meggan approaching Bran – the reaction seemed stronger/more possessive than the protective response she has towards all of them.
    Her reactions to the idea of Sirocco chasing Rin is quite different, though there also is less chance of Rin being hurt by that.
    As Bran exhibits a similar reaction a few times, this might be a mutual part of their relationship. I’m not sure his moodyness and brooding is the best fit for her personality, but she does provide him with much-needed balance. And after having to let go of nearly everyone and everything she came to care for, for her whole life (except her parents and one grandma), Bran’s tenacity might give her a very dependable anchor in her new life. That ‘not being able to let her go’ might be the one thing she needs most, even though she hasn’t quite realised it yet.

    Regarding threats for the future: though they’ve got the hired investigation agency keeping an eye on Tomas (who was hustled out of town by his parents), the unknown following them with a camera to get the photos of Darcy is only possibly, perhaps, linked to obsessive Tomas. With Meggan off to Oxford, Tomas should no longer be so obsessed with harming Bran, but that might not resolve the second stalker.
    It might be someone else who has it in for (one of) them or their friendship – I have a small inkling Sirocco’s mother might be a pushy person who would like to break up the triumvirate to give Sirocco a better chance at catching Rin.
    Or it could be hired minions of Kyou’s family (or less likely Rin’s, as he wasn’t openly dissenting yet), who want to get him back under their control – but trying to expose and shame them on an open school forum does not seem a likely tactic for those antagonists.

    I’m really glad she’s writing a sequel!

  15. Thank you, Hanneke, for you detailed analysis. Because of it I will keep the book around and try it again some time in the future. This summer is clearly the wrong time for me to read it.

  16. I’d say this is definitely a romance. The point that they don’t think of it that way in the beginning is pretty standard for a lot of romances–marriages of convenience, enemies to lovers, etc. They definitely think of it as a romance at the end; the implication of “pick one of us” is that “and that one will be your romantic partner.” Kyou asks if he can build a home for her, a serious offer for the future relationship.

    I’ve never read Holt before, came to this one assuming it was a romance, and just loved it. Mika’s a little bit too good to be true (she lost me at designer dresses) but the rest of it was terrific.

  17. Andrea K Host is a great writer, Jenny. If you also like SF or fantasy, you should give her other books a try.

    I know what you mean about the dresses, but I was ready to not take the story too seriously, so I just went with it.

  18. Hanneke, if I were laying bets, I would bet that Mika’s relationship with the three male leads is going to come out in the second book. But I wouldn’t lay a LOT of money on that, because I suspect the big, epic family meltdown will provide a whole lot of drama without adding anything else.

    Bran isn’t my favorite of the three, but I think you’re right on all counts.

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