Alexa reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover
4.5 stars

When I saw that cover and read the blurb, I was ready for an epic queer urban fantasy adventure. I mean, doesn’t that just sound badass? Two fourteen-year-olds: a nonbinary witch zombie, and a Muslim lesbian werewolf. I have read many urban fantasy books where the supernatural creatures live in secret, so I was excited to see this book went in another direction, one I’m always eager to read more of: a world where supernatural creatures live among humans and are regulated by rules and laws. It’s always interesting to see how intertwining the two worlds changes them both.

Out of Salem is unique in that regard because instead of human, the default seems to be witches, with only a small percentage of the population being nonmagicals. Werewolves, zombies, selkies, shapeshifters and other creatures are minorities that have limited rights which vary in countries or time periods, just as with real life minorities. I loved all the little details, like the ways to become a zombie, the casual mention of prophecies, or shapeshifters being able to marry any gender in certain countries.

So, for the first part of the book, I was getting what I signed up for: a really well-built and interesting urban fantasy world in the ’90s that incorporates supernatural creatures into real-world history and culture. And I loved it. Then, it gradually got a little too real for comfort. It’s as if the book was asking the question, “hey, you know what’s scarier than zombies and werewolves? Reality!”. (A little like that Doctor Who episode with the spiders and the gun-loving white guy.) As I kept reading about horrible bullies, racist rallies, police brutality and windows being broken for the owner supporting minority groups, it was difficult not to think about how many people go through all this stuff daily. Z and Aysel having to sit in class while the teacher talked about how dangerous their kind is, and Z reading a book by a guy who thinks all zombies should be killed in horrifying ways reminded me of too many similar situations I went through for being a queer person.

There are many fantasy books that use supernatural creatures as metaphors for real-life oppressed groups, while using all white and allocishet casts. What made the metaphor in Out of Salem really work for me is that while Z, Aysel and the others are persecuted for their supernatural traits, they are also minorities in real life. Z is nonbinary, Aysel is a lesbian, and major side characters include an elderly lesbian, a Black Jewish teacher, and several transgender werewolves. While the main focus isn’t on these real-life traits, they are still mentioned: the older lesbian expresses joy that Aysel is able to come out so young, Aysel draws a parallel between being a “good werewolf” and her mother being a “good Muslim”, and it is made clear that Mr. Weber is risking a lot more as a Black Jewish person than one of his more privileged colleagues might.

All in all, I consider Out of Salem a wonderfully well-written book with great world-building and characters. I loved the little group that formed by the end, and how they gradually became closer to each other. I loved that Aysel and Z gravitated towards each other not only for both being monsters, but also both being queer. I loved Z explaining their identity, how both they and their friends were kind of awkward and unsure about terms, but not malicious by any means – the way you’d expect 14-year-olds in the ’90s to be when they have few queer adults to look up to or to learn from.

My only real complaint is that I found the ending too open, and since I saw no indication of this being a first book in a series, I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t sure how I expected all the plotlines to be wrapped up neatly, but this was still a let-down.

Concent warnings: misgendering and deadnaming (mostly due to Z being closeted, not intentional transphobia), death of family members, body horror (because zombies), police brutality, some gun violence, racist rallies, bullying, suicidal thoughts

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @runtimeregan.

Marthese reviews The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance edited by Melanie Gillman and Kori Michele Handwerker

other-side

“Anyway, I’m pretty sure malevolent spirits wouldn’t scrub your bathtub”

The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance is, as the name implies, a queer paranormal romance comic anthology, published in July 2016. I had donated to a crowd-funding campaign for this anthology and I’ve been meaning to read it since it arrived in my inbox.

The anthology starts with some words from Melanie Gillman on the importance of representation in literature. A little disclaimer from my end; this is not a lesbian anthology, it’s a queer anthology which represents various genders. The stories are all non-explicit and quiet romantic.

I cannot go into much detail since the stories are short by my favourite stories were “Ouija Call Center”, “Shadow’s Bae”, “Till Death” and “Yes No Maybe”. “Ouija Call Center” is about a client that uses an Ouija call center to contact someone diseased and the operator! “Shadow’s Bae” is about a monster that becomes friends with a human and they stand up for each other. “Till Death” is a cute story and critical comic about an elderly couple and ghosts that stand up for their community against gentrification. Finally, “Yes No Maybe” is a comic about a tenant who tries to contact the ghost that’s in the apartment and is really adorable.

The art in the anthology varies from piece to piece; they are all so different from each other but this helps to distinguish one story from the other. The length on the story, I believe, is just right–not too long or too short.

The anthology as a whole has a lot of diversity in its representation of gender, ethnicity, culture and age. This collection does not shy away from using different cultures and mythologies for its base and does not include just stories with young characters. Many characters were people of colour. The relationships in the different stories are usually between a human and a supernatural being. Overall, most of the stories are really fluffy and cute so be warned! Although some had a darker tint.

What I like about this anthology are two things: its general cuteness and its queerness. There is a lot of representation for people out of the gender binary spectrum. This book is like a safe space, to enjoy a story rather than who is in the story. I’d recommend this book to those interested in comic anthologies, quirky criticism, cute stories, paranormal and overall stories that go beyond gender.

Marthese reviews Aces by Kathryn Burns

aces

‘I did not adult well’

Aces is a short book on the relationship between Astrid and Hollis, two very creative women living in Seattle. They both work in retail but have a shared passion for writing. The story is told from Astrid’s perspective.

This story feels real, is not that cliché and is very diverse with its characters. Most times, the diversity is built up and not introduced at once and it does not feel like the characters are diverse simply to be so, they just are.

Astrid works at a shoe shop, has had a variety of hobbies and has a lack of self-confidence. She does not, at first, get on with her girlfriend’s flatmate Lloyd. This is however, explained in what I thought was a good reason. Astrid loves Hollis a lot, though she feels that Hollis is always right and keeps her emotions in check too much.

Hollis works in cosmetics but her other passion is blogging and writing. She writes fanfiction as well and has some geeking moments in the book. She also loves her flatmate’s cat Schrodinger. As she likes writing and expresses herself in that method, she writes letters about Astrid which Astrid finds in unexpected places. One of these letters brings about the confession that Hollis is asexual. After that, their relationship has better communication but does not change much.

This book has a lot of cool stuff in it and whether they are mentioned in detail or only in passing, I think that it is a good depiction of queer reality. Currently pop culture and recent history are mentioned but there is a 90s vibe at times. As the characters attend Poetry Slam Mondays, we are introduced to some poetry slam! Video making and blogging are mentioned and are done by at least four characters. Minimalism is also brought about by necessity. Stuff like transitioning, non-binary, dysphoria, period pains, drag, on coming out as a continuous process and bi-erasure are topics of discussion or thought in the story.

There are many characters, whether they appear often or simply once, with various gender identities. The families mentioned are also of different forms. Their group of friends is very varied but like Clementine said, Astrid brings them together.

What I also liked in the story, was that there was the depiction on genuine love, not too perfect and that information processing was done in a healthy way. Although at first Astrid bothered me a bit, she grew on me while I liked Hollis from the beginning because I could relate to her.  I think the best thing was however, when there was a discussion on shipping in fanfiction and how that is still part of asexuality.

I do not have a particular thing that I particularly did not like although Astrid was slightly bothersome in the beginning as I had the perception that she was too self-centred. This was not so much the case and it just takes a while to get used to the character. There was also an instance that the term ‘transgendered’ was used instead of ‘transgender’ however, I think that was due to language use.

I think that there are so few books that speak about asexuality in their plot, much less when they are combined with various other diverse characters and speaking so planning on reality, with deep thoughts as everyday occurrences. Perfect for over-thinkers like me! It truly is a love story that gives you hope. Where the characters do not follow a formula but make the love their own.

I recommend this book for people that want to read a book with an asexual character, for people that want to read more books with trans inclusiveness (including non-binary), for geeky people that like to see fanfiction, slam poetry and internet culture incorporated into the life of the characters and for people that want to read a short but realistic love story.