Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass
Connor Major’s summer break is turning into a nightmare.
His SAT scores bombed, the old man he delivers meals to died, and when he came out to his religious zealot mother, she had him kidnapped and shipped off to a secluded island. His final destination: Nightlight Ministries, a conversion therapy camp that will be his new home until he “changes.”
But Connor’s troubles are only beginning. At Nightlight, everyone has something to hide from the campers to the “converted” staff and cagey camp director, and it quickly becomes clear that no one is safe. Connor plans to escape and bring the other kidnapped teens with him. But first, he’s exposing the camp’s horrible truths for what they are— and taking this place down.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED SEPTEMBER 15TH, 2020
Before you begin, it’s important to know this story centers queer kids in the midst of conversion therapy.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t read it. In fact, I’d sure as hell recommend reading something like this from an OwnVoices author like Adam Sass as opposed to an allocishet creator, because this way, you get to center the queer voices first and foremost.
But the point remains that this is a tough story in some ways. An angry one, really. Connor Major, who just wants to be loved and accepted for who he is, has to face the reality that his mother shipped him off to conversion therapy because she can’t accept it. Worse still, he has to face the pain intentionally inflicted not only on him, but the other queer kids trapped in the Nightlight Ministries camp. This isn’t some cheery coming of age experience.
It’s bitter and dark and asks teens, even children, to make impossible choices just to survive.
I’m certainly glad I read it when I was ready; this would have made for a tough read if my mental health hadn’t been in a relatively steady place.
And yet, despite all the gloom, this isn’t solely a tragedy.
In fact, this is what I admire the most about Surrender Your Sons: despite the danger and the cruelty, we have main characters who refuse to back down. When the adults in their lives hurt them instead of protect them, they take it upon themselves to change their world. Even better yet, they do it together. There is no gatekeeping, and there are no questions of “queer enough.”
There’s only a group of campers who know they deserve better than violence and control held over their heads, and they’re going to end this together.
Really, it’s an incredibly hopeful note to include in a book with such dark and upsetting elements. By working together, by listening to one another and trusting your community, there’s hope for change, for something better on the other side.
And at the end of the day? I’m such a sucker for hopeful endings. If characters can go through their own personal hell and still come out the other side looking forward the future, I get all mushy inside. What can I say? I’m just a simple sap with simple needs.
What Surrender Your Sons needed, though, was a tighter plot structure.
This is supposed to be a thriller, but at times, I found Surrender Your Sons to be almost painfully slow, even over-focused on exposition. Nearly the first third of the book felt as if it took far too long to take off and introduce the mystery elements that support the thriller elements, and sometimes, later portions of the book slid quietly back into that feeling, though not as frequently as in the beginning.
Additionally, I sometimes felt that the major plot points detracted from Connor’s struggles. Granted, Surrender Your Sons examines cycles of violence and retribution, so it’s not all about Connor by any means. It looks into the ways violence is perpetuated against vulnerable queer folks now and then, here and elsewhere, and it adds a necessary depth to the book. But there are times when I felt that it didn’t focus enough on the here and now of Nightlight Ministries, instead pushing too far into a past that held only partial bearing on the present.
Overall, though, this is an angry queer thriller worth a go.
Different readers are going to get different mileage out of Surrender Your Sons. Such is the truth of most books, but it’s especially important here. There will be readers with a great deal in common with Connor, and others who feel for him without having experienced similar obstacles. For some folks, this may be an exceptionally triggering book, and for others, maybe not.
But the potential variety of experience, the intrinsically queer perspective, and the pulsing, persistent hope for a better future make Surrender Your Sons worth reading. It releases on September 15th, only a few days from now, and when you’re ready, I recommend joining Connor on his journey toward loving and protecting himself and other queer kids like him.
CW: homophobia, transphobia, domestic abuse, gaslighting, child abuse, violence (including gun violence), sex scene, loss of a loved one, racism, suicide, alcoholism, underage drinking, smoking, gambling