When I wrote “barring a dark horse in December, I am quite sure this is going to be the best romance I read all year,” about The Hating Game, I didn’t honestly expect there to be challenger. What a pleasure it is to be rounding out the year with Kulti which is a fantastic contemporary romance and one that is on theme for 2016 with a difficult hero, c.f. Dukes Prefer Blondes, Hold Me (review to come), and Act Like It.
Correctly described to me as “terrible and magnificent” by my friend and fellow reviewer, the hero of the book is the eponymous Reiner “King” Kulti, a world-renowned, retired soccer superstar. Arriving in Houston as an assistant coach for the Women’s Professional League franchise, he’s ambivalent about his presence there and soon so is everyone else. Kulti was Sal Castillo’s childhood hero and teenage crush, the man who helped inspire her to relentlessly pursue her goal to play soccer for a living and to excel at her chosen sport.
Told from Sal’s perspective, Kulti is a longer than average romance that moves really well and is also a slow burn. Practicing in the morning, and running her small landscaping business in the afternoon to make ends meet on her meager player salary, Sal is perplexed by her brooding and silent coach whom she often refers to simply as “the German”. When she does finally get a better sense of him, it’s not a good start, but the two stumble towards friendship. Thirty-nine to her twenty-seven, Rey is terse, tough, uncompromising, and frequently tactless. What to some extent, but not completely, balances out Rey’s tendency towards being difficult is the decorum with which he treats their budding relationship out of respect for their professional roles and the fact that, while often frustrating, he is generous and willing to learn from his mistakes.
There aren’t a lot of romances in which both the hero and heroine are elite athletes. Sal and Rey are very physical people and complete jocks. They eat, sleep, live, and breath sports. Neither one was secretly bookish or nerdy. I loved it. She just wants to play and be the best she can. Rey, retired and perhaps a little lost, is well aware of Sal’s potential and wants to help her fulfill it. He knows she could be one of the greats of their sport, despite the recognition limitations for women.
Rey can be a hard person to like at times, but the glee and directness with which Sal stands up to him compensates for a lot. He may not be the nicest man in the world, but, honestly, very few men in these books are. Steadfast and honourable, yes, but arrogance is a frequent element in romantic heroes and Zapata has the integrity to write one who remains true to himself throughout. What Kulti lacks in a soft touch, he makes up for in fierce loyalty, devotion, and willingness to have his faults brought to his attention.
Kulti is one of the best romances I’ve read this year and I’ve added it to my romance recommendations list. I will be keeping an eye on Mariana Zapata for more stories that take their time and have beautifully paced character development.