When genderqueer fourteen-year-old Z Chilworth wakes from death after a car crash that killed their parents and sisters, they have to adjust quickly to their new status as a zombie. Always a talented witch, Z can now barely perform magic and is rapidly decaying. Faced with rejection from their remaining family members and old friends, Z moves in with Mrs. Dunnigan, an elderly witch, and befriends Aysel, a loud would-be-goth classmate who is, like Z, a loner. As Z struggles to find a way to repair the broken magical seal holding their body together, Aysel fears that her classmates will discover her status as an unregistered werewolf. When a local psychiatrist is murdered in an apparent werewolf attack, the town of Salem, Oregon, becomes even more hostile to monsters, and Z and Aysel are driven together in an attempt to survive a place where most people wish that neither of them existed.
This book is difficult for me to review. On the one hand, I am simply in awe of its presence. The mere fact that it exists practically has me falling on my knees in gratitude. A genderqueer main character? Written by a nonbinary author? In an urban fantasy novel? This is the queer genre fiction of my dreams.
And yet… This turned me off in so many ways. I’ll start with the worldbuilding. At the start, I thought that the existence of magical creatures was hidden from the public. Then it seemed that the public was fine with the notion of magic and magical creatures. Then, finally, it became clear that the public was more or less fine with the notion of magic, but had a virulent hate for magical creatures. I don’t mind the world here; I’m just frustrated that it was so unclear to me what that world was. Not to mention, it took me approximately 100 pages too long to realize this book was set in the 90s. The prose is vague enough that I had a difficult time understanding what was happening at any given moment. That being said, the story was original enough and I was glad to know it once I figured out what was going on.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. I understand (finally) that this book is about a bunch of 14-year-old kids in the 90s. So I get that there’s not a lot of information available to them, and that times were different, and that kids aren’t great at expressing things eloquently. I get it. And I also get that this is an #ownvoices novel, so I have faith that Hal Schrieve has a sufficient handle on gender theory. But the way it was expressed made me so, so uncomfortable on multiple occasions.
When Z comes out to Aysel, Aysel is confused, as she has never heard of nonbinary gender before. She asks Z, “You mean transsexual?”, to which Z replies, “I’m not quite transsexual. Transgender…. It’s neurological. I did a test online. I’m almost transsexual, but I’m not.”
As if, a) transsexual is an acceptable term to use, for anyone, ever, and b) as if nonbinary gender is somehow a person’s falling just a little bit short of that gender finish line.
Then, later, Z says to Tommy, “It’s like a deep feeling that I just don’t want to be a woman… because people will always see me in a certain way, and make me act in a certain way… And I don’t think I could be a man, because I hate almost every man I’ve ever met.”
Look… someone’s gender is not a wish or a desire. It’s a fact. I’m not nonbinary because I don’t want to be a man or a woman. I’m nonbinary because I’m not a man or a woman. This doesn’t even make sense. What cis woman on earth doesn’t wish that people would stop seeing her and making her act the way they do? That doesn’t change their being women. And what trans man doesn’t know the feeling of hating men, and hoping to god they don’t act like that? That doesn’t change their being men.
When I was discovering my own gender, I tried very hard to be a woman. I tried all my childhood, adolescence, and some of my adulthood to be a woman. Despite my best efforts, it didn’t take. Because I’m not one. And failing that, I tried very hard to be a man. That didn’t work either. Because I’m not one. It’s not about what I want . It’s about who I am . Which, again, I imagine Hal Schrieve knows, being nonbinary hirself, so I don’t know how this got into this book. It is incredibly frustrating to me.
This maybe wouldn’t even be such a big deal, except for the reviews coming from everybody and their dog saying how educational this book is, how it breaks down barriers and teaches you something. I don’t want some ignorant asshole coming up to me and thinking they “know” that I’m “almost transsexual” . It makes me sick. I don’t know what to do with that. And again, I get that this is young kids in the 90s. But maybe some of this information could’ve been in an author’s note or a preface?
tl;dr read this book, it’s good and important. But don’t ever fucking say “transsexual”.
Schrieve's debut novel uses literal monstrosity as a metaphor for queerness to great effect. Z, a nonbinary teen, dies in the same car crash that kills the rest of their family, then wakes up undead. They are now legally a non-person, needing an adult guardian to sign on to the responsibility to incinerate their body when they begin to decompose and lose their sense of self. That is a terrifying eventuality, but in Z's immediate future is another problem: their only living relative hates monsters, and constantly calls Z by their deadname and uses she/her pronouns for them. Luckily, Z is able to escape to the care of their godmother, the widowed lesbian owner of Salem, Oregon's queer and pro-monster independent bookstore. At school Z slowly befriends Aysel, a Turkish-American lesbian werewolf, and Tommy, who everyone at school calls a fairy (as in, a descendant of the fey). After a local murder is attributed to unregistered werewolves the police begin to crack down harder on all magical people, brutalizing and destroying monster communities just trying to survive on the edge of homelessness. There's so much to love in this book- that experience of discovering that every single person in your friend group is queer, the anguished teenage feeling of being different in a way no one will understand, the willingness of the young to commit to life-altering magical/emotional oaths. If the claustrophobia and dysphoria of the opening scene make you wince, keep reading, I promise the book only gets richer and more surprising as you read.
God, this book. It started out SO STRONG and did not let up AT ALL until it was finished. It was just. A tour-de-force. I want to shake the author and go "YOU DID THIS!! HOW DID YOU DO THIS??"
Z's deadpan (heh heh) point of view and narration style worked perfectly for me. They're exactly the kind of narrator I need when horrible events are being described, because the plain and simple statements of 'what is' make the painful into factual and give a sense that it's another thing to take in stride. Sort of like the internal voice I need when I'm in a crisis and I've gotta make myself believe that I can take things one step at a time.
And trust me, there's a lot of horrible things to get through. You have to have a tough stomach for this book (I'll give content warnings at the end), there is a lot of body horror - unsurprisingly given that the main character is a slowly-decaying undead teen. But if you can get through that, you are rewarded with one of the most real, heartwarming, resolute stories of friendship and chosen family in the face of oppression that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
I don't think I've ever seen political stuff regarding structural violence in a novel stick its landing quite so perfectly (though take that with a grain of salt given that I'm not someone directly at risk for a lot of state violence and murder). This narrative felt so real that while I was sympathizing with these fictional characters oppressed for both real-world and fantastical reasons, I felt as though I were reading about one of the myriad current-day stories of resistance to fascism around the U.S. Everything from the interpersonal struggles and disagreements of the anarchist werewolf group, to the wildly varied range of reasons the rally attendees had for being there... it all rang so true.
I think it made a big difference that alongside magical oppression for fey, werewolf, etc. ancestry, the book specifically had both trans and nonbinary characters, and characters of color, and that fascism, racism, Islamophobia were addressed specifically on the page. The monster-ness of the characters was not simply a metaphor or stand-in for these other oppressions.
ETA: I forgot to mention a beautiful thread running through the book: the question of personal responsibility, especially within structures of power. All the characters have to confront choices they've made, the circumstances that forced and influenced those choices, and decide how they want to act in the future. When Aysel says to Z "I would die for you" it might sound like teen melodrama, but it's also very real. I especially love the book's exploration of the roles of parents, caregivers, and other adults in positions of authority, variously failing or stepping up to the fullness of the role. The latter, when it happens, is so powerful it legit had me weeping.
Content warnings: graphic body horror, homophobic racist and fatphobic bullying, mentions of police violence and torture, mentions of murder, suicidal ideation, mentions of past medical abuse, arson
I had really high hopes for this book, it sounded sooo cool! Genderqueer zombie, fat lesbian werewolf, set in the 90s, sign me the fuck up. The reality was a bit of a let down for me, though.
There were parts of this I really enjoyed, but also parts I... didn't. Mostly I thought this book really dragged at times - it was on the long side for a YA fantasy and that was just unnecessary.
I'm also hesitant to recommend the trans rep in this book, because it was really messy. With reason, because it reflects the views from the 90s. And parts of it did resonate with me, just because they were messy and being genderqueer often feels messy to me. So I personally did like (parts of) it, but still... If people are reading this, I do want them to know that it holds some outdated views on what being trans means. There's also quite a lot of deadnaming and misgendering, so be aware of that as well!
Thank you to Edelweiss+ for a copy of Out of Salem in exchange for an honest review.
I don't usually DNF books that I get to review; no matter how bad it is, I try to stick with it until the end. However, with Out of Salem, I felt myself dreading each time that I picked it up and it was starting to put me in a severe reading slump. Because I'm DNF'ing it, I will not be putting a star-rating on this book, nor will I be putting this review on my blog.
There are definite pros to Out of Salem, such as it's representation. Z is a genderqueer zombie & Aysel is a lesbian werewolf. It's those two aspects that originally sold me on this book. I absolutely loved reading Z go by they/them pronouns, because I feel that I haven't read many books with that rep. Plus, I'm always here for supernatural LGBT+ beings. Another pro to Out of Salem is the fact that Virgina Woolf and Ernest Hemingway were apparently werewolves. Silly things like that makes me extremely giddy.
As for the writing & dialogue, I just couldn't get into it (but! remember! this is an advanced readers copy -- things can change!) There's just too much cringe. & the character development is so unbelievable & tacky. One of the characters, Tommy, tells Z a secret -- a character he practically just met & goes, "I'm telling you this, because I trust you". I'm sorry -- what? Thankfully, Z responds with, "Don't trust me. I don't even know you." At least someone is making sense. There are other conversations sprinkled throughout the book that made me want to drop this book a long time ago.
There's nothing that grasped my attention plot-wise and character wise. I didn't find myself getting attached or even caring about the characters; their personalities were very meh to me. There are a lot of unnecessary scenes in this story that does absolutely nothing to push the story forward.
I'm sure that there are going to be a lot of people who won't agree with me and this review. & if that's you, I'm very happy that you enjoyed this book! It just wasn't for me.
This was actually a DNF for me which hurts me to say because I'm so into everything this book is trying to do. The world, the inclusiveness, the diversity...all of it was awesome. The writing style is what made me tap out. The prose is choppy and repetitive. The dialogue is incredibly awkward and unnatural sounding. Both things affected characterization, in my opinion (it was hard to see any of the characters as actual people).
Do you want a YA novel about a lesbian werewolf and a genderqueer zombie becoming friends? You bet you do! And Out of Salem is just that book!
In a horrible accident, Z’s entire family died. And so did they. Only, they’re still walking. Z’s looking at a new, uncertain future as an orphaned zombie in a world that hates zombies. They’ve lost their family, their friends, and their life. They’re lucky enough to have Mrs. Dunnigan, an elderly lesbian witch and family friend, for support, but their body is deteriorating by the day and all information on zombism is censored.
Aysel is another fourteen-year-old at Z’s school, and she also has a secret — she’s an unregistered werewolf. Werewolves are required to report to the government to be held in facilities where they will endure electroshock therapy to suppress their shapeshifting. In Z, Aysel sees the potential for a friend who will understand what it’s like to be a monster.
As their small town of Salem, Oregon is rocked by the death of a psychiatrist in what’s a supposed werewolf attack, Aysel and Z will have to rely on themselves, each other, and their friends and allies to survive in an environment increasingly hostile to anyone perceived as monstrous.
Where do I even start with Out of Salem? It’s utterly fantastic and sure to be among my favorite releases of 2019. First off, it’s a queer friendship story, which is something I’ve been desperately longing for more of, and I know a lot of people feel the same. Especially in fiction, queerness is often equated with romance, and so many stories ignore the reality of queer friend groups. Like most of my really close friends in high school were queer… and we became friends even before most of us were out. And this isn’t a scenario unique to me!
Secondly, I love the world building in Out of Salem. It’s set in an alternate history version of the 90’s, so it mixes historical and urban fantasy. In the world of the story, most people have some sort of magic, and spellwork is a core part of the academic curriculum. Being a witch is perfectly respectable. In fact, it’s normal. But werewolves, zombies, and shapeshifters are all magical minorities who face large-scale societal discrimination. It’s a pretty chilling dystopia. For example, if Z doesn’t have a human caretaker, then the state is legally allowed to dispose of them since the walking dead aren’t considered to be human any longer.
It’d be easy for a book like Out of Salem to follow the tropes of other YA books mixing dystopia with urban fantasy. In such a story, Z and Aysel would join a monster rebellion, probably become the leaders, topple the government, and all the problems of persecution and discrimination would be solved. Out of Salem isn’t like that, and it’s so much more scary for the realism with which it handles Z and Aysel’s lives. The two are fourteen-year-olds trying to survive in a world hostile to their existence, and there’s nowhere for them to run. There’s no promise of a far-away safe harbor free of oppression, and even finding participating in larger communities opens them up to danger.
I feel like Out of Salem also avoids a lot of the pitfalls that typically characterize fantasy oppression — you know, when magic users or werewolves or whatever are the marginalized and oppressed group. That’s mostly because both Z and Aysel are marginalized in real-life ways. Z’s genderqueer, and Aysel’s also Muslim in addition to being lesbian. Out of Salem‘s focus on the dystopic oppression of fantasy monsters makes it bearable to read about in a way I don’t know if I could have handled otherwise. Look, I’m getting stressed out enough when reading about anti-werewolf bigotry!
Z and Aysel are both great protagonists who I quickly grew attached to. They’re both trying to survive and also hoping to find friendship and community too. The supporting cast was also strong, and I particularly loved Aysel’s relationship with her mom. Her mother knows Aysel is a werewolf but has chosen not to report her to the government and devotes herself to helping Aysel have the best life possible.
It took me a little bit to get into Out of Salem, but once I was in, I was all in. I soon became swept away by the narrative of Salem’s growing anti-monster sentiment and the young monsters living through it. This whole book reminds me a bit of one of my long-time favorites, Sunshine by Robin McKinley. I think it mostly comes down to the urban fantasy world building and how it seems to beyond the boundaries of the page, becoming something expansive and all-encompassing.
As a book from a small press, Out of Salem isn’t likely to get a huge marketing push. I guess I’ll need to be extra loud about how amazing it is then because this is a book that more than deserves an audience.
I received an ARC with the expectation of a free and honest review.
Overall, Out of Salem was an enjoyable and somewhat thought-provoking urban fantasy. The characters outshone everything else, as Aysel and Z were instantly likable and interesting with little introduction needed. Rating: four lesbian selkie grandmas/five
Favorite quotes: - “There must be a great mystical beauty in being out at sea and waking and swimming in the surging waves watching the dawn.” - “It’s hard to leave a place until it’s literally killed you.” - “Z watched her and felt a burst of something bigger than love in the middle of their stomach.”
I read this as part of Halloween Bingo, so the fact that this book could reasonably be applied to about half the squares is woth mentioning. This is the first book I've read which used the singular nongendered they/their as pronouns, which slowed me down a bit at the beginning. But it worked, and never felt gimmicky. Z. was a plausible fourteen year old zombie who's entire family died in an auto accident: only Z reanimated.
There's werewolves and high school bullying and good teachers and bad teachers and a growing movement in favor of shooting all the monsters. As a metaphor, it is terrifying. But it's also the story of school misfits becoming friends, and of teens solving a mystery, so there is significant fun as well as the terror.
I'm delighted it was recommended to me, and I can't wait to read Shrieve's subsequent books. As good as this debut was the next one should be astounding.
This book is so good and important for so many reasons that I can't put into words right now because I'm too overwhelmed with my feelings, but I will soon! Loved it!!!! ____________________ Update about 6 hours later.
OK, I have put my thoughts together and want to review this book because I feel so strongly about it. But before I do I want to include a disclaimer: I am an academic and some of my thoughts on this book are going to get academic-y and so, if that's not everyone's thing I completely understand and in fact if that makes my review sounds overly obscure or pretentious to you, completely fair and understandable even, but that's where I want to go in some parts of this review and so I am going to (not all my review will be this type of talk though).
First, I mentioned this book is really important. I see a lot of pre-reviews or reviews here (and truly elsewhere in the larger bookish communities, especially YA ones) mentioning representation, meaning a book features characters who hold identities that are marginalized in our society and represent these characters in thoughtful, affirming, and basically not harmful ways. This is very important, and this book definitely does that, but that's not it! That is not all it does! The importance of this book doesn't stop at just featuring marginalized folks; it goes beyond that.
This book does one of the best jobs of any book I have read recently (maybe ever, even) of creating and leaving readers with a real, true sense of possibility. And possibility, I think, is what so many trans and queer readers need, especially young readers (and I don't mean this in the "It gets better" type way). Readers need to dwell in possibility, in things being different, better, or even just other or alternative than they are now, and this book does this in such a perfect way. It somehow avoids all the trappings of that "it gets better" sentiment, and I think one of the ways it does so is in the careful and deep attention to multiple intersections (for example the narrative deals with age, ethnicity, religion in addition to sexuality and gender).
So here's the thing, as an academic writer, researcher, dare I even call myself a theorist (I at least spend time theorizing, so maybe I should own it)... I digress, as an academic writer, I grasp and write about the concept of "queering" very often. In fact, this concept has helped me and I am sure so many others flourish, so it has helped me think in new and different ways and has helped me put into words things/phenomena that I notice, that I like, that I care about, that I want more of, etc. Previously, I have been introduced to (a sort of corollary) concept of trans-ing (such as from Vic Muñoz's essay “Gender/Sovereignty” in Transfeminist Perspectives: In and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, edited by Anne Enke and so many others that I am sadly not going to mention here for space/time). And if I am being honest, I struggled with this even though I was deeply immersed in Transgender Studies scholarship and writing. I got and tried to think through how transgender identity is a significant impetus in our culture for questioning and for transforming, transgressing, even transcending societally imposed boundaries (actually quite reminiscent of one of my favorite quotes to use in teaching, a quote that ventures to define transgender by Susan Stryker: Transgender is a way to signify “the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place" (Transgender History) ). But here's the thing, I always got the sense that this concept was more than that (and that my grasp was too surface level, even flat, and my thinking just wasn't able to go where I wanted it to/where some of the scholarship was going). And even though I was familiar with this trans-ing concept, I think I could only really go there theoretically in how sex, gender, and maybe nationalism could be trans-ed. That was, UNTIL THIS BOOK! This is the impact of this book. I think this book is trans-ing things and in so many ways. Here are some of them: It reframes and therefore transitions our contemporary world into a similar one, a kind of mirror one with magic, monsters, etc. in a very pleasurable and exciting way. It transforms our expectations; for example, it devotes real time, energy, and space to queer friendship and connections in general, rather than the expected queer romance/sexual interest. It transgresses the trope of having either just gay or lesbian characters or just one type of LGBTQ character. It transgresses the maybe unspoken assumption that a story 'only has space' for one type of trans character. Example: we have a genderqueer character and we have a transsexual woman character in a lot of the action of the plot together, and they do not clash, battle, or even disagree with one another. As readers, we do not have to spend our emotional investment indulging in the kind of questioning that happens in our real word about whether these identities are 'contradictory' nor do we spend time (potentially unrealistically) seeing these identities seamlessly compliment one another (which would be a kind of glossing over). Instead, we are given another possibility, we get to just sit with the diversity and complexity of identity, and I love it! The characters are allowed to simply exist in the same space and work toward a common goal. Then, in literally transfiguring characters, bodies, corporealities, and transcending the limited possibilities for society, oppression, and state violence, this book TRANS-ES EVERYTHING. And the result is we, readers, get to linger in this liberating state of alternative possibilities, and that is extremely important and enjoyable. It is more than just representation, though it is that, too, certainly.
I even think this book trans-es the actual freaking literary device of metaphor itself. Z's experience of being a zombie is not just a metaphor for aspects of queer- and trans- gendered experiences, but it is also not-not a metaphor. Does that make sense? Maybe not. It is sort of metaphor, but it is more than just that. The same can be said about how the marginalization and oppression of monsters reflect on and present our current world and race, gender, class, sexuality, immigration status, religion, etc. I guess I am saying that the metaphor-y and symbolism-ish stuff in this narrative just work for me as so much more than a stand-in for something else. But they ARE functioning to make us contemplate, feel things about, and even do thing about our current world.
If I haven't clearly said it or said it enough, I want to end by saying I love this book and I want it to be in front of a lot of readers' eyes!
CW: car accident, death of a parent, child death, homophobia, transphobia, deadnaming, religious content, bullying, body shaming, fatphobia, body horror, police brutality, gun violence Actual rating: 3.5 stars
Pros: HELL YEAH that queer werewolf analogy that Wednesday not only failed to bring to completion, it actually ignored, tripped over, and then fell down the stairs because of. Cons: I genuinely kept forgetting this was set in the '90s. I wish we had had a little more concreteness in the urban half of the urban fantasy setting. Like, love the creature aspects and the witchy parts, but give me, like... uh idk what was popular in the 90s, I was born in 1996. Um, Furbies? Lisa Frank? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Something like that!
It's a bit of a slow start, though that does get to feature a ton of character work, and it definitely picks up around the halfway mark. I feel there are some other reviews here that hash out some thoughts I had about the general rep, but I'm not sure if it's my place to speak on them at this point in my personal queerness journey lol. Instead, I'll just say - I know there are some people out there, teens and adults, who have been looking for this book for a long time. I hope they find it ❤️
(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.)
I am all about LGBTQ+ **GENRE FICTION**, so this book was right up my alley. I definitely want to see more genderqueer and GNC characters fighting monsters or being "monsters" or living in a world with monsters... any of that, and I'm there for it. In that regard, this book met all of my expectations.
It was hard to find my footing in this world, though. It is an alternate reality of Oregon in the 90s. It can take a while to understand what legislation and discrimination exist in that world. Additionally, as an Oregonian, it irked me that Salem was described as a drive-through rural town on the highway... if that was supposed to be a part of the alternate reality for some reason, I missed where it was established.
I didn't love the characterization and the plot was MEH at points, but I believe that these are narrators that teens want and need to hear from. For that reason, we can totally amplify this book. It's a great choice for classroom and school libraries.
So I love monsters, right? I *especially* love sympathetic monsters, whether they're the tragic and conflicted kind who do unspeakable things but feel bad about it, or friendly monsters who are basically just weird-looking people with odd habits, or, as here, monsters whose monstrosity serves as a very obvious metaphor for belonging to any number of real life marginalized groups. OUT OF SALEM both enhances and complicates that metaphor by making its monster heroes queer and otherwise outsiders in many real life ways *at the same time as* they're zombies, werewolves, and fae. That's exciting to me now, and it's especially exciting to my inner teenager, who was used to finding queerness in their YA and genre fiction mostly by squinting through layers of metaphor and subtext, or by focusing on peripheral characters and villains. Although this novel is set in an alternate universe version of 1997's Salem, Oregon, where magic is a real and normal part of daily life and monsters of all kinds are known to exist and brutally discriminated against, it feels extremely timely and of the time in which it was written (the U.S. in the 2010's). That's not a bad thing! The antagonistic forces in OUT OF SALEM aren't malign mystical forces; there's no cartoonish Dark Lord character encroaching on the normal world. Instead, the normal world itself is the antagonist; society is shown over and over again to be profoundly unjust and unsafe for anyone who's too "different", who stands up for the downtrodden too vehemently, who makes a convenient scapegoat. I suspect that five years ago I might have criticized the depiction of this oppression and danger as making an overly heavy-handed, repetitive, simplistic point, but I was kind of a naive chode five years ago, and I lived in a different world. These days, I welcome any literature, maybe especially literature for kids and teens, that's willing to take a blunt, firm, angry stand against bigotry, right-wing hate/fear-mongering, and cops. The blunter and harder to miss or misinterpret the better, really! (That said, OUT OF SALEM does have several scenes of teenagers being hurt/threatened/beaten/shot at/etc. for "being monsters" that were pretty hard to read precisely *because* they depicted realistic child abuse and police brutality despite the fantasy veneer. It was always a relief to me when the book would segue from those scenes into more magic-based confrontations.) OUT OF SALEM hit a few stylistic sour notes for me-- the prose is fine, but the author repeatedly uses some sentence constructions/turns of phrase I find awkward--, but they were things that could easily have been fixed with another quick editing pass. I really enjoyed all the characters and their relationships. Nonbinary teen zombie Z, who spends most of the novel literally falling to pieces (in the first chapter they accidentally remove their eyeball from its socket while trying to take out their contact lenses, and it gets MUCH worse) is probably my favorite, but they're all sharply drawn and intensely likable. Schrieve has a great handle on how teenagers, and people in general, really think and talk. Much to my joy, there is NO ROMANCE AT ALL in this fantasy YA, let alone a boy/girl star-crossed love affair or will-they-won't-they, but there is a GREAT DEAL of *extremely* swoon-worthy friendship content, especially towards the end. Worth mentioning as a final note are the excellent ink illustrations of lead characters Z the zombie and Aysel the werewolf on the inside of the cover; I was actually disappointed there weren't other illustrations in the book itself!
Very smart, heartwarming tale of a nonbinary fourteen-year-old dealing with the deaths of their family members and their startling new status as undead -- and their friend, a fat Muslim lesbian werewolf -- AND so many other kinds of magical beings but to reveal would be to spoil. I loved how the oppression of magic in this world has allegorical parallels to the oppression of queerness while not being a 1:1 correspondence -- because queerness and transness also exist in this world, as do homo- and transphobia, along with other forms of structural oppression that shape these characters' lives. In other words, it's not the fantasy bubble of Harry Potter, but rather an alternate history that actually wrangles with real-world social crises. I also really appreciated/enjoyed the many gruesomely comical details describing Z's new zombie embodiment and subjectivity -- their eye popping out, for example, among other things. A fun read with excellent politics.
Have you (or a middle grade/YA reader you know) ever:
- felt lonely - needed to learn more about societal structures of power and oppression - met and followed around cool older kids who fascinated you - had to confront the fact that adults who are supposed to protect you have failed you - felt fear due to hate-fueled political movements you cannot control - felt like a monster - been proud to care for and be cared for by other monsters - been sustained by the care of friends who are willing to fight for you
If you answered YES to any of the above questions (and if you didn’t, what’s going on? are you good? have you been honest with yourself about your feelings at all recently? maybe give a friend a hug), then OUT OF SALEM by Hal Schrieve is a book you should read and send to all the middle schoolers in your life. Schrieve’s debut novel follows fourteen-year-olds Aysel (a Turkish-American lesbian and unregistered werewolf) and Z (a white genderqueer zombie whose family recently died in the same accident that left them undead), and a well-drawn crew of other characters as they try to survive state repression, solve a murder, and escape a rising tide of militant anti-monster violence in Salem, Oregon. Also, it’s the 90s.
There’s something in OUT OF SALEM for everyone (well, everyone interesting), but this book is specifically for kids/teens/young people who are made outsiders by white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalism. Schrieve knows that being a monster is cool and good and caring for and being cared for by other monsters is how we survive.
Once the plot of OUT OF SALEM really gets going, it unfolds with a Greek-Tragedy-like sense of engrossing inevitability. The ending, as many other reviewers have mentioned, leaves a great deal unresolved, and the teen characters confront a great deal of violence and horror on their way to it. That said, the book is filled with humor and charm. Schrieve writes in a matter-of-fact way that both lets the horror and sadness of the story land with more weight and allows the humor and wit to shine through. The jokes and funny moments in this book often sneak up on you, which makes reading a delight.
Schrieve’s tone is accessible and treats hir audience of young readers like the astute, emotionally intelligent people they are. Xie does not minimize or talk down to their experiences or perceptions of injustice, in school hallways or the wider world. Hir clear-eyed assessment of the ways marginalized children move through a world mediated by parents, teachers, other adults, bureaucrats, and the state, from Aysel’s small moments of conflict with her loving and overtaxed mother to Z’s harassment and intimidation by a teacher, will feel real to many readers. Kids (and adults) everywhere are constantly encountering the inherent unsafety of the world, and trying to figure out how to live in the midst of catastrophe. Schrieve treats that experience honestly and offers hope without falsely minimizing the danger hir characters face. They are active forces in the world around them, constantly gathering knowledge and helping and saving each other, and Schrieve’s engagement with things like police violence and state-sanctioned hate movements is unapologetic and age-appropriate for the intended audience.
Schrieve’s keen eye for detail also makes the book real and exciting — specific descriptions of school bathrooms or what it’s like to be a genderqueer kid who wears one hoodie all the time are highly relatable, and the classroom lessons and materials the main characters engage with as part of their magical education are so thought-out and precise that it made my nerdy heart sing. I particularly remember a scene in which Z’s history textbook includes a 19th century woodcut of an undead person. My specific array of interests make that appealing to me, but it’s also an example of how ingeniously detailed the world of this book is, which creates a very immersive and compelling reading experience.
Schrieve’s deep respect for hir audience is clear in every sentence, and strengthens the story’s appeal for younger readers. As an added bonus, I find that this style of writing also makes the story accessible and exciting to me as an adult reader. The vocabulary and syntax of OUT OF SALEM may be different from a novel aimed at adults, but the humor, emotional honesty, and specificity of the characters and their lives made the book one I was loath to put down. I’ll admit to bias here — I work with young people regularly, and I enjoy reading YA even when it’s not about gay monster kids — but I would really, really encourage anyone who is hesitant about a book for young readers but intrigued by the subject matter to pick OUT OF SALEM up and give it a try. If you’re like me, you might realize while reading this book how much you needed one with this much heart and political acuity as a kid, and how deeply the absence of such books in your middle school library is affecting you now. It’s a bittersweet experience, but one I can’t recommend enough.
If you’re still reading, here is a brief list of other miscellaneous things I loved about this book: - Aysel’s fierce, aspirational commitment to punk - Aysel’s narrative voice when she is the wolf version of herself, which is distinct and thrilling - The strong sense of place — I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, but I felt like I knew about the town of Salem just from reading this - The scene where Z reads the jacket copy of an informational monster book aimed at teens, which is both hilarious and alienating - The inane cruelty of the monster-tracking bureaucracy of this world - Z’s scene of union/reunion with an older character they have previously corresponded with, which made me feel so much joy and grief and other things at once that I barely knew what to do with myself - Schrieve’s honest portrayal of moments when hir teen characters have caring adults looking out for them, but are still isolated and can’t get their needs met - Schrieve’s also-honest portrayal of the amount of power teachers have over the children the teach, both for good and evil - The descriptions of unpleasant adults, which are extremely evocative and fun
When I first picked up this book and read what it was about, I was intrigued at the idea that someone was having a genderqueer character front and center as a protagonist. Mix in the magical world aspect, and a werewolf in hiding, and I was absolutely sold. I really wanted to adore this book, it seemed like all the pieces were there, but I never fully got connected to the characters, the story, or even the world it’s all set in.
While I don’t have anything particularly overwhelmingly positive to say about the book, I don’t have anything overtly negative either. This book was a very ‘in the middle’ experience for me. There was a lot of potential for the book, but for me it read like a second draft – not quite so rough that it seems unedited, but still in the ‘cut some unnecessary things and enhance other areas instead’ stage.
The character of Z was my favorite, but I still felt disconnected from them. Every character in this book, for me, had a distinct barrier between themselves and the reader. The dialogue wasn’t always natural, but even when it was, there was no portrayal of emotion through it. At most we were told a character felt something without actually seeing it. Z came off as bored most of the time, but I was being told that they cared for their friends, at least enough to be protective of them and offended by them when there were fights or disagreements. At first, I thought this was because Z is a zombie, and it would have been a clever nuance, but when the same patterns were happening with every other character, I realized it was more to do with the writing and less to do with characters as individuals.
The character that was the most expressive was Tommy, and he was constantly switching back and forth between Z for my favorite character. The story is told in alternating perspective between Z and Aysel, but honestly, I felt a closer connection to Tommy, and he was a secondary character, but only after the halfway point of the book. The characters themselves, on paper, were very interesting, but I just didn’t feel them leap off the page. There were points where characters would get mad and it was so jarring it left me more confused than empathetic towards their motivations. At one point I remember sitting there and having to reread a few pages previous to try and understand why a character was upset in the first place: there was no build up, just all of a sudden they were mad.
The story itself was a good one, but there was way too much extra fat to the scenes that needed shaved off. I get that when you’re writing you want it to feel real, but sometimes we don’t need to see every single thing that’s happening in a scene. Aside from that, there were certain situations that were brought up that never came into play later on; things that I actually thought were going to be foreshadowing or at least addressed again, but never were. Entire characters were the same way where they’d drop in and then disappear leaving so little of an impact on the story or the characters that you’re left scratching your head wondering why they were there in the first place.
There’s an entire plot centered around a group of bullies at their school who are rallying together to form a kind of neighborhood watch type group, but for the school. The leader of it is the son of a man that wants to run for a position with law enforcement, so for me I thought this was going to be an explored subplot of how prejudice can be passed down from generation to generation and filtered into something new each time. No, after the initial rally we never see anything with this subplot again, but it was built up for so long that it felt like a gaping loss once it was gone. It literally never comes up again.
Throughout the book there’s a mystery about a man that was murdered, and the murder is blamed on a werewolf. Werewolves are like this world’s scapegoats for anything, and the way they’re portrayed is obviously allegorical to the BLM movement. With the plot about the man running for a law enforcement position, his son rallying kids at the school, and so much mystery around the victim’s death, I was fully expecting it to be a setup. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. I won’t spoil the murder mystery reveal, but just know that it left me feeling deflated.
Stepping away from plot, what was the most confusing element of the book was the worldbuilding. It’s set in our world, in the ‘90s, but there’s magic and magical creatures. The way it was built came off as messy to me. For instance, well known figures were said to have been werewolves like Virginia Woolf (ha), and Ernest Hemingway, but…Ok, when creators do things like this, I don’t think they really think it through. When you rewrite parts of history you need to really understand what you’re writing. For instance, why is everything in this world exactly like it is in our world? Wouldn’t the existence of magic and magical creatures have some kind of impact on how our society would be? Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, having been werewolves, would still pursue writing in the exact same way as they would have if they were human? The order of presidents we have and what their administrations did, would be exactly the same as their IRL counter parts?
When you’re given the chance to remold what a world is like, heck, just a country, knowing that it would have been entirely different with something like magic thrown in, why would you not take advantage of that? Why leave everything exactly the same with just some magic and creatures thrown in? The reason “Harry Potter” works in keeping the world the same is because the magical world is hidden. If it wasn’t, everything would be different. Historical revisionism is hard, and when it’s not done as well as it could be, it shows (go watch the 2017 Netflix film “Bright” and you’ll know what I mean).
Taking that away though, the magic itself in this world is never really explained. I don’t know how it works, and it never takes the time to explain it. You don’t need to sit down and give me a lesson, but at least show me through experience. At certain points the magic becomes inconsequential to the point that I forgot it was a part of the world at all. It’s said that there are some that can use magic and some that can’t. Why? You can use words, or do the magic in your head. Why? Using circles and candles is seen as old and outdated. Why? There was so much missed opportunity, things that I would have preferred more time be spent on rather than unnecessary dialogue and having every single action in a scene written out.
None of these things ever really made me mad, I was just left sighing and wanting more. There were so many good ideas in this book, and so much potential that I’m more frustrated than anything else. It took me a week to read this book, and that’s like an eternity for me, especially when I’m in a quarantine and reading and doing reader’s advisory is part of my job: all I have is time.
There was even a point in the book where a paragraph is repeated two paragraphs down. I thought I was having déjà vu and reread both paragraphs: they were exactly the same. It was so early on that I expected it to be part of Z’s condition, maybe that being a zombie was having them experience repeating moments. No, it never happens again, this was clearly just an editing error, which says all I need to know about the editing of this book. Many of these choices could have been reworked with a good editor honestly.
As far as LGBTQIAP+ representation, this book had a lot of it, and that was refreshing. How characters came to learn about different gender identities and sexual orientations was healthy and realistic as well. No one instantly is like ‘oh ok’, they ask questions, they get confused, sometimes they don’t even agree, and no one is ever played as being a bad guy. It’s important for people to see that it’s not easy for everyone to have instant understanding because that’s very rare, and shouldn’t be a set expectation for anyone. Everyone comes around in the book, but there was time there for them to do so.
The only gripe I had was that the book opens with Z reading their profile results from a website that explains to them their gender identity based off of their test answers. I was interested in this and if it was real, so I visited the site and looked over the questions. Full disclosure, the site is old and hasn’t been updated since 2009, and since this book is set in the ‘90s, options were limited for this kind of material.
That being said, the test itself was extremely bias towards the feminine and the nonbinary. There were pretty much no questions that had possible answers that were positive towards being male (and remember, there are more than transgender women and people that are nonbinary, there are transgender men too, and there’s an obvious bias against feeling male in any way in this test). Kids are going to read this book, and if they go to this site and one of them is a transgender boy, a site like this can leave them feeling…wrong. They’re probably already feeling out of place if they’re exploring their gender identity, and if they come across a test that excludes them further it can be damaging.
I understand that the book takes place in the ‘90s, but it was written in recent years and there were better ways to get across that your character is genderqueer without referencing a very outdated and very real test. Make up a website if you must use a website, because kids will check to see if something is real because it has the interactive factor. I have no doubt that the author had zero ill intent, but it’s a simple matter of responsibility that all authors have when their target audiences are teenagers or younger.
So, would I recommend this book? Well I certainly wouldn’t defame it. There is a lot of diversity and representation in the book that’s important, but everything else leaves you grasping. Even the ending of the book is abrupt, like it literally has characters walk up a set of stairs and then ends. I saw it coming, I knew it was going to just have a drop off ending that made no sense and has no outlook, but I still hoped it wouldn’t. There’s a message in there somewhere, but I just didn’t get it. That being said, there’s nothing harmful about the book other than the test (in my opinion), but it’s so unfocused I can’t really think of anything to compare it to. I guess I’d have to say that if someone asked me about it, I wouldn’t try to convince them not to read it, but it wouldn’t be a book I’d necessarily think of when it came time to recommend.
When genderqueer teen Z becomes a zombie after a car crash, they have to adjust quickly to their new undead life. Faced with rejection, Z moves in with an elderly woman, and befriends Aysel, an unregistered werewolf. When a local psychiatrist is murdered in an apparent werewolf attack, their town becomes even more hostile to monsters, and Z and Aysel are driven together in an attempt to survive a place where most people wish that neither of them existed. More of an Urban Fantasy than a zombie novel, Out of Salem includes trans and lesbian rep, and draws interesting parallels between monster hunting and queerphobia.
My understanding is that the term 'transsexual' is outdated and widely considered offensive, unless a trans individual is comfortable using it for themselves. Therefore, I was disappointed to see Z regularly being questioned about 'oh, so you're transsexual?' or 'that means you're transsexual, right?' by characters who the reader is supposed to root for, when the accurate word to use would have been perhaps non-binary or genderqueer, which is what Z uses for themself. It's concerning to me that people might read this book and be impressed by the gender diversity, but then think using 'transsexual' is appropriate in everyday life, which it definitely is not. I thought for a while that this book was from the 80s or 90s, because it reads that way in terms of the language, and it feels as though it came before the Young Adult genre existed, but apparently it was only published a couple of years ago, so I think it's fair to question this language usage and expect better.
Out of Salem is quite hard to read because the chapters are incredibly long, and go on and on and on. I would recommend stopping at each section break instead of each chapter, because otherwise it can encourage a reading slump. I understand why Z's narration is so emotionless and holds so much narrative distance, because of them being a zombie, but I think this offered an opportunity for Aysel's PoV chapters to be far more emotionally-driven or offer the reader a closer look into her head, but her chapters felt very similar in voice to Z's. Basically the novel kept too much of an emotional distance from the characters for me to be fully engaged.
cw: body horror; transphobia; queerphobia; homophobic bullying; magical racism
- read my tbr challenge ?? / 167 - 1. Out of Salem 2/5
There are hundreds of YA books about magic, monsters, and teen angst so an author would need to do a lot to stand out in the already crowded field. Hal Schrieve does just that! Out of Salem blends classic monsters (NO VAMPIRES!) with LGBTQI characters. The pairing may seem odd but it truly does come together into something very special.
Out of Salem centers around two high school outcasts: Z and Aysel. Z is a genderqueer witch who becomes a zombie after a car accident kills them and their entire family and Aysel is a Turkish American, lesbian, unregistered werewolf. Though magic is prevalent in Salem, certain magical beings like zombies, werewolves, faeries, and shape-shifters are all regulated by the government and widely discriminated against. Z and Aysel must find a way to stop the rapid decay of Z’s newly undead body all while their town is quickly becoming more hostile towards the town’s monster residents.
Schrieve does a fabulous job developing the main characters and fully presenting their queer identities. The inclusion of queer monsters provided a unique format to explore the LGBTQI experience as well as the people’s fear of the Other. Just as Salem becomes overtaken by fear of werewolf terrorists, our current country is being run by fearmongers who refuse to accept – and actively oppress – people who look differently, love differently, or identify differently.
Though I liked the main characters, Out of Salem was not a complete success for me. I found the plot unfocused and the “world” was never fully realized. Certain story lines and supporting characters were not fleshed out and I was often left asking why/how/what and never getting the answers I was looking for.
Despite the flaws, I still enjoyed this charming queer-zombie-werewolf story and I fully believe the world could all use more creative and inclusive reads like Out of Salem.
** Advanced Reader Copy was provided by Seven Stories Press for an honest review
i loved this book! i have a lot of thoughts and feelings and a bunch of them have probably already been said so i'll keep this brief but! schrieve's protagonists and their friends are extremely lovable; "queer monster found family" is always an amazing premise and schrieve does it so well. xie also consciously avoids one of the most frequent pitfalls of socially-conscious fantasy (not that i read enough of it to make this claim with authority): the oppression of monsters as allegory for real life forms of oppression, which are then elided from the story. schrieve's world is one where werewolves, fey, and zombies are violently oppressed by a fascist government, but it's also one where violent racism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression also exist, and in many cases are faced by the same characters. z, aysel, and the other monsters face police brutality, but so does their teacher, mr. weber, not because he's a monster but because he's a black man who defends his oppressed students. werewolves and fey are subject to medical abuse couched in the language of psychiatric treatment, but, as z realizes, framing monstrosity as a mental illness must also have grave implications for mentally ill people who aren't monsters. an underground network of werewolf anarchists (many of whom are poor, trans, and/or people of color) plan to extend their resources to the general homeless population. at the risk of hammering the point too far home, i think one moment perfectly encapsulates this allegory-plus approach. when z asks their guardian, mrs. dunnigan, about other monsters' relationships to gender (seeking a reflection of their own), she explains to them that some monsters, like shapeshifters, blur the boundaries between gender. she likens this boundary confusion to others embodied by monsters (human vs. animal, alive vs. dead) and says that this is one of the things that threatens anti-monster reactionaries. mrs. dunnigan links the fantastical with the "real world," providing a shared explanation for hatred of monsters and trans people. in the book's climax, schrieve dramatically showcases z's boundary-crossing potential in a way that makes magic and monstrosity feel powerfully and beautifully connected to the Other. a few disappointments with the book's very final act (including some long awaited magical fight scenes that i found frustratingly hard to follow, although maybe that was the point?) kept this from 5 stars for me, but this was perfect coming off of a summer that i personally spent roleplaying queer monster teens (if you like this book, check out monsterhearts. if you like monsterhearts, check out this book.). would 10000% recommend to ya /and/ older adult audiences.
Ho. Ly. Shit. This is one of the most original, important books I've read this year!First of all, there is rep coming out the wazoo. Hal is a nonbinary author, writing a nonbinary main character (Z) and a plus-sized nonwhite lesbian best friend. So. We got that covered!I will go ahead and say, there's a lot of misgendering/dead-naming/out of date terms in this book. HOWEVER, a) Z only tells a few people that they're not entirely a girl but not a boy either, b) Z also only tells a few people that they want to be called Z, and c) the book is set in the 90s, when being gay was still considered being mentally ill.Hokay, now for the story.Z doesn't remember much about the wreck except for it happening. They're left with their uncle, who works with the government to make sure magical beings don't get out of hand (like werewolves, zombies, etc.). But Z doesn't want to stay with their uncle, because, well, they're undead. Their best guess is that their mother worked some major necromancer magic to keep the family safe. But said spell only counts if, ya know, the entire family didn't die in one fell swoop.Aysel is a Turkish-American lesbian, fat, and a werewolf. She's raised by her single mom, Azra, and just wants to be the goth badass she knows deep in her heart she is. She latches on to Z as a best friend, and comes out to her (about three times).Werewolves are considered the MOST dangerous creatures, next to shapeshifters. They contain a ridiculous amount of magical energy, which makes them hard to control. Hence why Aysel is constantly freaking out about people ever finding out she's a wolf.I loved this story right up to the end. It touches on some SUPER important, timely themes (gender identity, race relations, etc), but the end lost me. I thought I had an idea of where the story was going, but it ended up going in a VERY different direction.At its core, Out of Salem is a love story. Not because of romantic love, but because of a love that's so deep and pure, where someone is on your side no matter what, where there's immense amounts of trust. It's absolutely beautiful.Entirely original while still fitting in with timely themes, Out of Salem is the queer YA novel of 2019. I give it 4.5 out of 5 temporary tattoos.
This was basically two stars for my enjoyment and one because I want queer characters, especially in things that aren’t contemporaries. I saw this cover at the library on the new shelf and was instantly intrigued, and then when I heard queer + zombies + werewolves + enchanters, I was sold. I got home, checked goodreads and was extra excited when I saw how many people enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them.
My first, and biggest, issue was that it was fantastical revisionist history without any backstory. All the characters just were like “yep, there’s monsters and magic and has been for a long time” but because they just take it for granted, it’s never really EXPLAINED well, and I found the historical references jarring. I’ve read historical fiction + fantasy that I’ve not had that problem with : Dread Nation, Romanov, The Hunger all spring to mind(in the first you get a backstory, and the other two an explanation of why normal people wouldn’t know this). But this was just SO MUCH without enough explanation. They just randomly talk about Wolfe and Hemingway having been known werewolves, for example.
The plot did nothing for me, which would’ve been fine if I’d loved the characters and just wanted to see them do stuff, but I didn’t really care about any of them that much.
I had the chance to read this book a while before it was actually published and I really really loved it. I love how Schrieve builds the characters and the setting. I felt like while it's a fantasy novel, it had a lot of everyday reality built into the setting, such as the school and the family matters Z goes through, and during all of this, the writing was balanced and realistic enough to keep readers engaged regardless of what they're looking for, and all the fantasy and the supernatural was embedded into the plot in a way that felt very meaningful, like every supernatural element was placed there for a reason (social commentary, establishing a character or their growth, etc), and nothing was superfluous. I don't usually read young adult literature but I really enjoyed this book and I recommend it to everyone, especially to people looking for well written and current literature with diverse characters and themes that are relevant to the current political climate in many parts of the world. Also, I loved all the characters and felt like they could be my friends half a dozen years ago when I was a weird queer fat kid. Thank you Hal for writing this book.
This was really good. A big book but a fast read, with good characters and worldbuilding that built upon itself well. Set in the 90s in a world where magic and monsters exist (as second class citizens), but reads and feels very real & modern. Schrieve is excellent at writing scenes of chaos and disorientation from the perspectives of the people right in the midst of them, and the reader will get caught up in the action, feeling like they are there. Good queer & trans & multicultural rep without it being the point of the story or hyper focused on. Obvious political themes but not heavy handed or extreme - just part of the lives the characters are living. Very good! Maybe a sequel?
Wow wow WOW!!! I don't even know where to begin in my praises for this book!!! For starters, this is the only book I've ever come across with an character that specifically identifies as Genderqueer, and does it Right!!! Another thing is that none of the main characters get involved in a romance, and I can't tell you all how Wonderfully refreshing it is to read a YA novel that doesn't have romance secondary plot!!! This is honestly the best book I've read this year so far, and will probably remain the best book I'm going to read this year!!!
What a weird, strange, odd, etc. etc. book! That was one crazy story. Honestly, I love Z and Aysel and Tommy now. They're so easy to get attatched to! Spoiler incoming: At the end when Z spit out (or, I guess, threw up) the light and turned everything to forest, I was very confused. I don't know what was even happening but I'm OK with that. It kind of leaves it up to me to choose what happens. :) Great book, definitely reccomend it for teens like me who are into the odd!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Such a fun and elaborate book! I might come back and add some thoughts but just know its super queer, has supernatural creatures, and friendship! What more could you need!? Also, it's sort of major but the main character uses They/Them pronouns and I think it might be the first (or second) YA book I read where that has been the case! Go check it out!