“Welcome to our crisis, already in progress,” says fellow camper Darcy Culpepper to Connor Major, the hero of Adam Sass’s phenomenal new debut YA horror novel Surrender Your Sons. It’s Connor’s first morning at Nightlight Ministries, the gay conversion therapy camp to which he’s been dragged by the burly men his mother hired to kidnap him, and Connor is terrified. He’s on an island, away from society, away from his family, and away from his boyfriend… and the frightening Reverend who presides over the camp won’t let him leave until they turn him straight.
It’s a chilling line that hints at just how much Connor has to learn about the Lord of the Flies-esque situation into which he’s been dropped, but like much of the novel, it also works on another level. One of the biggest themes of the book is that, for most of us, to be queer is to be in pain for the formative years of our lives. Yes, Darcy and the campers at Nightlight have been dealing with the crisis of the therapy camp before Connor arrived, but he too has been dealing with his own in-progress crisis, and now their crises are intersecting. Surrender Your Sons asks: how do we grapple with that knowledge, that our lives are defined by pain? How do we find a way through the fog and towards each other? And Surrender Your Sons answers: When the whole world is against us, finding support from each other is the only way out and through.
Or, as Nightlight camper Marcos puts it: “How nice of you to visit me in my loneliness.” That quote would have once adorned my AIM away message, and it will likely soon be the first tattoo of queer teens everywhere.
The mystery at the heart of Surrender Your Sons concerns a dead man, a long-ago hate crime, a mysterious shadow company, and a series of missing tapes. Connor decides that, in order to take down Nightlight, he needs to figure out what happened decades ago that is affecting his current situation, and he becomes a detective-adventurer of sorts as he struggles to retain his sense of self under the oppressive, suffocating religious tactics at the camp. However, as was the case in Lost — which Sass has said was a major inspiration for the novel — although the mystery is propulsive and engaging, and I did find myself furiously flipping pages to find out what happens next, where Surrender Your Sons really shines is in its richly drawn characters.
Connor is a funny, empathetic, relatable hero, and Sass’s narration of his inner monologue is full of instantly recognizable queer cultural specificity. This is a book deeply steeped in modern gay culture in ways I found delightful. Connor listens to Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande to calm himself down. His brain is broken in exactly the way mine is: I loved reading along as he thinks in snippets of Real Housewives gifs — “Not well, bitch!” — and as the campers talk to each other in Drag Race references. He even self-deprecatingly thinks of his coming-out — a horrific event that resulted in his mother having him shipped off to this brutal regime of a conversion therapy camp — as having “flopped.”
There are some deft, sensitive, lovely touches here, too — when Connor intuitively picks up on a camper’s discomfort at being called a certain name, he thinks in gender-neutral pronouns until he learns the camper’s identity, and the narration seamlessly shifts into affirming the camper’s gender identity in ways that the conversion camp overlords will not — Surrender Your Sons doesn’t even tell us the deadname the counselors insist on calling the character.
Conversion therapy is an all-too-real horror suffered by queer kids around the globe even to the present day, so it makes the perfect thematic setting for a horror novel. It often results in lifelong struggles for the people who have gone through it, including estrangement from their family, self-hatred, and suicidal ideation. Despite being a YA novel, Surrender Your Sons doesn’t make light of any of the above. It’s quite devastating even.
I had some issues with the pacing in the early sections of the book, where the action is first ramping up and Connor’s world is thrown into chaos; initially, the book features regular flashback chapters interrupting the flow of the action — perhaps another Lost inspiration — and I frequently found myself wishing we could get back to the present-day thriller sections instead. Thankfully, the device falls away as the book goes on.
In addition, later sections of the book feature a significant amount of villain monologuing, including from the cartoonishly evil camp counselor called “Miss Manners.” For a book as realistic and grounded as this one — with its raw depictions of the dueling traumas of the closet and of being out of the closet — Miss Manners seems particularly out of place.
Nevertheless, what Sass has pulled off with his debut is remarkable. This is a book that will make queer kids around the country feel seen in ways they usually are not, and in placing this conversion camp cautionary tale in the horror genre, it has the potential to reach an audience that wouldn’t pick up something like Boy, Erased. Its memorable characters, exotic setting, and heart-pounding action make it ripe for a cinematic adaptation or a Netflix miniseries, and I hope they get to work on making one sooner rather than later.
On a final note: crucially, unusually for the queer YA genre, this is a book that levels with the reader that sometimes coming out isn’t the right choice, isn’t always safe, and that’s okay too… but it reassures readers that someday there will be a community waiting for you with open arms, even if you have to crawl through a jungle to get to them.
Surrender Your Sons is published on Tuesday September 15th from Flux Books. Find more information about the book and author at AdamSassBooks.com.