As we bid farewell to 2020, we say hello to new books releasing in 2021. Kicking off the new year is Ryan La Sala’s sophomore novel (and contemporary debut), Be Dazzled. It follows Raphael “Raffy” Odom, who carries a deep passion and talent for crafting, especially creating cosplays. His story is told in two alternating time periods: the present day as he prepares to compete in a major cosplay competition –where his ex-boyfriend Luca is Raffy’s main competition — and several months before when he meets and begins a relationship with Luca.
The general pacing of the novel is well done. La Sala stretches the cosplay competition in a way that keeps it interesting; the alternating timelines ensure the intrigue of the story remains intact. Each chapter ends with small cliffhangers that keep you hooked with the respective storylines. La Sala builds to the climactic points of both timelines so that no momentum is lost, keeping the excitement of the competition and the emotion of Raffy and Luca’s relationship and personal struggles.
The alternating times also gives the characters a chance to grow. Any questions about how Luca and Raffy drifted apart are answered as the timeline tracks their relationship before the competition unfurls. La Sala shows the two extremes of their relationship: rivals and two people who spend nearly every moment together; it’s a natural and dynamic progression. Raffy and Luca’s friends, Inaya and May, also have time to shine. May remains a constant in Raffy’s life, written as someone who supports and understands Raffy as best she can. Meanwhile, while we don’t learn much about Inaya, her arc still flows well throughout the story. Another major player is Raffy’s mother, Evie. Though Evie herself doesn’t have a large amount of page time, the way Raffy talks about her paints a clear picture of the nature of their relationship, and every time she does appear, she only reaffirms what Raffy states about her. I enjoyed reading about Raffy and Evie’s interactions. La Sala includes anything pertinent to the story, but it would be interesting to learn more about how Raffy and Evie’s relationship reached the point it did. For me, their dynamic was one of the most intriguing aspects outside of the cosplay competition storyline.
Something particularly noteworthy about the book is how La Sala writes anxiety. He doesn’t fall into harmful stereotypes or mock anxiety in any way. Every experience Raffy has with anxiety, from tight con deadlines to encounters with other characters, comes across as entirely genuine. He acknowledges when he spirals without downplaying how it affects him. His experience, while the contributing factors may differ, is instantly recognizable. This is a book that serves as an excellent example of how to incorporate characters who struggle with anxiety in an incredibly real manner.
There’s plenty to admire in Be Dazzled, but my favorite aspect about the book is the obvious care and love imbued into every single word. La Sala’s attention to detail crafts a vivid story easy to visualize as Raffy talks through his process. It’s easy to feel excited about Raffy’s passions, whether they’re ones you have in common with him or not. Every pop culture reference, every mention of cosplay, and every mention of Luca (pre-competition especially) is written in a way that seems as though Raffy could talk about each one for days without stopping. And whether you’re a cosplay enthusiast, someone who generally loves arts and crafts, or neither, it’s easy to revel in the art settled right at the core of the story. La Sala shares a story that celebrates creativity and reminds us to live our lives with passion and determination.
Be Dazzled is a delightfully queer, nerdy, and intensely comforting story that demands multiple re-reads. La Sala effortlessly blends crafting knowledge, humor, and emotion to bring the story to life. He perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being at a con and the excitement that swirls around seeing the creative endeavors of cosplayers right in front of your eyes. He creates a bittersweet feeling of longing for the return of cons while remembering part of what makes them so remarkable in the first place. La Sala creates a protagonist many will find themselves in. Raffy’s story is relatable, authentic, and nothing short of dazzling.
Be Dazzled will hit shelves on January 5, 2021. Make sure to pre-order your copy here!