Kyle’s new apartment is nice enough, but his neighbors seem a bit cold. Except for the parental Mr. and Mrs. Frelich upstairs and smoking hot Tobias next door, no one seems interested in befriending him. All that changes one day when Kyle bumps into Tobias on his way to the subway station and gets invited to an impromptu welcome-to-the-building party. When Kyle mentions he’s a vegan, Tobias even promises to provide some foods that would be safe for Kyle. After all, nothing brings people together like sharing a meal. By the time Kyle and Tobias arrive at the station, Kyle has agreed to the party and already feels a burgeoning attraction to his sexy neighbor.
The party holds promise, until a particularly dramatic woman named Melia shows up making eyes at Tobias despite his obvious disinterest. She kills the mood of the party by making a scene, so Tobias offers to walk Kyle home…but not before the two share an intense kiss. Less than twenty four hours may have passed since Tobias formally introduced himself, but Kyle definitely feels a lot more than a spark of interest. It’s more like an inferno of desire. But Tobias has a secret, one that he doesn’t want to reveal to Kyle too soon. Unfortunately, that control is taken away when Melia forces Tobais’ hand and attacks Kyle.
Little did Kyle know that attack turned him into a werewolf. Suddenly, Kyle discovers that the world of werewolf shifters is very real, and very incompatible with his vegan and pacifist values. Yet his bond to Tobias continues to grow. That bond is the one thing that makes Kyle’s transformation somewhat bearable. But it seems Tobias having a male lover is anathema to Tobias’ pack, because it’s seen as a weakness that can be exploited by other packs. Now, Kyle has to prove he’s not a liability and he’s got to convince the pack that being gay isn’t quite the target the rest of the pack believes it is. Kyle has to work fast, though, because any weakness, perceived or real, usually gets rooted out immediately.
Salad on the Side is book 1 in author Karenna Colcroft’s series Real Werewolves Don’t Eat Meat, which was first published by MLR Press in 2011 under the same name. It takes place in modern day Boston and the action is largely contained to the apartment complex Kyle has recently moved into. As far as world building goes, I thought this limited setting made the plot drag a little bit because we’re mostly just bouncing back and forth between Kyle’s and Tobias’ apartments. In the absence of a more varied physical world, the story seemed to focus on the dynamics of wolf packs. I thought Colcroft communicated her vision of what it means to be a werewolf very clearly. The themes of dominance and hierarchy are strongly described. Sometimes, it felt like those two qualities were championed at the expense of more deeply developing the characters and their relationships. Case in point: we learn in no uncertain terms that a pack can only ever have one single alpha, yet Tobais’ own pack is actually a sub-pack contained within a larger pack with its own alpha. In other words, the two packs are really just one pack, but there are two alphas. Maybe this will be better explained in future installments, but in this book, it just felt there was this weird dissonance between a purported absolute fact and an extremely central-to-the-characters exception to that so-called fact.
I was glad that Kyle was our narrator. Being a hard-core vegan and, as we find out later, a pacifist, it made for an interesting lens through which to learn about werewolf culture. These wolves insist that animal proteins are undoubtedly hands down the best way to get the protein they need for shifting, but Kyle does his level best to stick to his guns. Kyle also learns how fighting (to the death if you are challenging an alpha) is an integral part of moving up or down the all important hierarchy in the pack. Many times, Kyle gets reminded/told where his place is (on the bottom) because he’s a brand new werewolf. Kyle’s determination to not engage in the werewolf culture of battling for dominance gets explored in a very explosive way late in the book. Side note: One lover being used as bait to lure another lover into a trap is a favorite trope of mine. I thought this trope played out pretty well. It helped me understand how deep Kyle and Tobais’ mated-pair bond went, while also exploring Kyle’s shift from “total pacifist” to “do just enough to survive” and beyond. That said, I kind of felt like this big drama bomb got resolved a little quickly; I would have liked more time to savor the lovers’ angst and Kyle’s angst over drawing blood..
Salad on the Side sets up an interesting universe. On its own, I was a little disappointed I couldn’t feel more engagement with the characters; their personalities felt a bit one dimensional. Tobias is largely just fulfilling a classic strongest-of-the-pack-alpha kind of role with a weakness for Kyle. Kyle has his defining features (veganism and pacifism), but that’s hardly a personality. Over the course of the book, I read how Kyle constantly seems to magically just know things about how werewolf society works, but there wasn’t anything to explain why that might have been. Maybe this will make more sense in future installments in the series, but in this book it was just an odd fact that Kyle has been a werewolf for less than a week, yet intrinsically understands key aspects of the culture.
Overall, I think this is a great selection for people who love werewolf stories. There’s a bit of an exploration about what it means to be dominant in personality, but not necessarily in the bedroom. This book works hard to establish key tenants of werewolf society, which Kyle struggles to adapt to and may be setting up the framework for future books. The main characters seemed a bit lacking in personality, but the fated mates element adds some spice and ties into the question of what it means to be dominant.