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.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover

The night I was born, the attending nurse turned to my mother with a weird expression on her face. She noted that I had long delicate fingernails, and already a head of black hair; that a trail of fine baby hairs ran down my spine. “In the old days, you know, they’d have said she was a werewolf.” she told my mother. Mom, exhausted, laughed it off. It became a family story to tell later on–born on Halloween night, and a werewolf to boot! “In the old days,” Mom would laugh, “they’d have drowned you.”

It didn’t become a bitter story until she disowned me for being queer. “Why can’t you just choose to be straight?” she said. “I did. Why do you feel like you have to stand out like this?” In the old days, they would have drowned me. Now I had to find a way to keep my head above the waves.

In Hal Schrieve’s YA novel Out of Salem, everyone is treading water with a secret to keep. High school freshman Z’s just found out that they’re nonbinary–just in time to get into a car wreck with their entire family from which only they emerged, battered and freshly undead. Their classmate Aysel is Muslim, in 1990’s rural Oregon where anything but Christianity is a sure way to be ostracized–and she’s a werewolf, unregistered, which could easily be a death sentence if she gets caught. Their friend Tommy is constantly being accused of being either gay or an actual fairy, and while neither of those things is true, it doesn’t matter to his abusers. Even seeming just a little bit out of the norm is enough to put a target on his back.

And things aren’t about to get any less complicated for any of them when a local doctor is found dead. The police say he was murdered by a werewolf, throwing the town into an uproar of vigilantism and abuse against the other which is easily recognizable in today’s political climate. Every metaphysical minority is living in fear. The teenagers don’t feel that they have any reliable adults to turn to, or that if they tried, they’d only endanger them, so they have to handle things on their own.

I’m writing this review very narrowly, because I feel like this book was just that good. I don’t want to spoil any part of it. It’s urban fantasy of just-a-minute-ago, the Nineties as they almost were, but it’s also YA for people who weren’t born yet in the year it takes place; it balances teenage passion neatly against the now-slightly-foreign world of our past, only slightly sideslipped into the fantastic. Before cell phones, before the panopticon of stoplight cameras, but in a world that was not less dangerous to people who stand out. There’s a constant sense of being just a moment ahead of being caught, of barely outrunning the real monsters, and one can only keep running at that speed for so long before one’s energy gives out and something has to break.

I appreciated that the characters aren’t without teenage flaws. They’re all going through real, heartrending troubles in their daily lives, but also they make some choices out of inexperience that you’d believe a fourteen-year-old might make if they felt their back was against the wall. They reach for what small happiness they can find, they trust or mistrust, and none of it feels stilted or contrived. It all just feels like survival.

I was taken a bit aback at the first use of the word “transsexual,” as it’s not a term I’ve seen in sympathetic literature for a long time now. But it was the word used in the Nineties, and so it is the term used in the book. But of course the author isn’t unaware of that:

“Z, Aysel told me you were calling yourself like, genderqueer or something these days, right?” Z was a little taken aback by the conversation. “I guess,” they said. “Yeah.” They tightened their hold on Elaine’s shoulders. “The words change a lot,” Elaine said. “Doesn’t really matter.”

What matters more than the terminology, quoth the story, is the soul behind it, and these kids are figuring things out one mistake and injury and accidental insult at a time.

I was consistently balancing between amused at the bluntness and impressed at the deftness when it came to the use of metaphor in the story. Z’s a zombie, and they’re trans; more than once I’ve heard a trans friend tell me that their friends and family keep treating them like they’d died when they came out, and some other thing was shambling around in their skin. Aysel’s lycanthropy is treated a lot like I’ve experienced queerness being handled by the religious right, as something monstrous, something that needs to be caged or electrically shocked out of a person before they can be allowed in society. It was all on-the-nose enough that I got a bit of a tension ache between my shoulderblades. I so badly wanted the protagonists to find a way to freedom and safety, but what does that look like when the entire world is arrayed against you? And which of those needs do you choose, if everyone is telling you that you have to choose one or the other?

Even while all of society is insisting that the protagonists must be like them or die, even while most of the characters don’t see any way out but to run, the narrative suggests quietly that there’s another option. That there’s another demand for the characters to make. That building a community can build safety; that refusing to back down can protect someone else; that maybe you can transform the world into something new, something that has room for you in it, if only you are brave.

Final rating, a very rare-for-me five out of five stars.

Content Warning: Discussion of graphic injury to animated dead body (painless, but explicit); homophobia (from the bullies); physical abuse (same); mild mention of anti-Muslim bigotry; fat-shaming (bullies, again, these guys are *winners*), electroshock aversion “therapy,” racism, police violence (repeatedly), off-screen but explicit police murder of civilians.

Danika reviews The Abandoned by Ross Campbell

I learned about The Abandoned from Good Lesbian Books’s Lesbian Fiction list. A lesbian zombie graphic novel?! Sounds too good to be true! I tried to brace myself before reading it. Maybe there would just be gay undertones. Nope! It’s established from the first couple of pages that Rylie is into girls, though romance isn’t really a big plot line in the book. And when I actually got The Abandoned in my hands, it looked even better. A fat lesbian PoC protagonist?! And the art is amazing. Rylie is just as awesome as she looks. She and the other characters in The Abandoned have their own interesting personalities and interactions with each other. Rylie is the only person of colour character, but there are other queer characters. Honestly, the only complaint I have is that there isn’t more! I read The Abandoned in one sitting. Apparently, there were supposed to be two additional volumes, but they got cancelled. I wouldn’t say, as some reviews do, that this volume ended on a cliffhanger, exactly, but it is open-ended. The Abandoned also has some hardcore zombie gore. You do see people torn apart. So if you like zombie gore and lesbians, I highly recommend this!

Danika reviews Eat Your Heart Out by Dayna Ingram

I really wanted to like this book, because I have been looking for lesbian zombie apocalypse books for years (luckily, there are more than just this one now, but still). Luckily, this book is just as good as it sounds. First of all, it’s hilarious. I kept reading out passages to my partner, but I’d only get another sentence in before I wanted to read out more. This is mostly because the main character, Devin, is sarcastic and funny herself.

The zombies appear pretty much from the first sentence, and Devin is already in a lesbian relationship from the beginning, so there’s pretty much no build up to getting to the meat of the story. The zombie action has some of its own mythology, and there is definitely enough gore for a zombie story. In fact, it gets pretty sickening, and Devin sustains a realistic amount of injuries for being a random, untrained person caught in a zombie apocalypse.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was that the book is pretty much one long lesbian zombie apocalypse Michelle

Rodriguez fanfic. She goes by a different name in the book–Renni Ramirez–but the book is dedicated to Michelle Rodriguez, and it’s a pretty obvious substitution. Renni and Devin fight off the zombies together, using Renni’s movie-gained zombie-fighting skills, and attempt to rescue Devin’s girlfriend.

This is definitely a book I’d recommend, and I look forward to more from this author.

Also, check out the awesome inscription by the author.

Maryam reviews Zapocalypse: The Midnight Special by D. Dye

I feel as though Lesbian Zombie Literature is the new genre to look out for. We seem to have gotten quite a few books like this to review lately! D. Dye’s Zapocalypse: The Midnight Special appealed to me the most because it is set “in some hick-ass town deep in the swamps of southern Georgia”. Sounds about two skips and a jump from where I grew up.

This was a fun, quick little read, and I do mean quick – it was 44 pages long. Our protagonists are Gina and Ginger, who moved to the town of Ewahitchka, Georgia after college. (Interesting side note: There is no actual Ewahitchka, Georgia, but the name is one letter off from Wewahitchka, Florida – wonder if the author hails from there?) Horror movie fans and diner waitresses, they are who the town turns to when their loved ones start becoming mysteriously infected. But is the mysterious infection caused by nefarious biological engineering? Or are zombies just naturally made?

I really enjoyed this novella – the characters are enjoyable, the sex scenes are wonderful and hot, and the narration had a Southern feel. The narrative is interspersed with Creedence Clearwater Revival lyrics – the characters’ favorite band – and while I was familiar with the songs, I’m not sure if the way the lyrics wove through the story was totally successful. There were a few grammatical errors – just some wayward punctuation, but let’s close parentheses and end sentences with periods, not commas!

I think that my largest caveat about Zapocalypse is that it was just too short. Our heroines’ zombie-killing only lasts for a few pages, and then suddenly the entire story is wrapped up and tied with a neat bow. There was only one scene in which I felt the characters were in danger, and I think that danger is an important element of a zombie story – one has to be careful when avoiding the undead! The story was delightful, the characters enjoyable, but the climax and denouement were entirely too swift. That being said, I would be interested in a sequel, should Dye decide that Gina and Ginger will throw the dart to the map and pick a new place to live. Let’s just hope any further installations are a little more fleshed out, story-wise.