Review: Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book to review.

I wanted to love this book so much. I’ve been fascinated by the concept of Young Centurions and I’m always collecting books and games to use in education or parenting. Fate! Pulp, which is not really my thing but very close to steampunk and great for adventuring! Strong teenage girl character who kind of reminds me of Nancy Drew on the cover! All of this looks so good. And I really like the idea of books set in the world of the game, because it gives kids a way to experience the setting and see what adventures and Fate-style character traits look like in it.

Another thing I really liked about this was the mention of Sally and her best friend Jet playing make-believe adventure games with characters like themselves but with cool names in more dangerous situations than they faced (until now). Sally now thinks she’s too old for the game, but Jet is definitely still way into it. He even goes by his character name in everyday life. Which, to be honest, actually is a bit weird but I have such strong feelings about names and owning our identities so I love that he insists on this and that Sally listens. It doesn’t matter how silly your chosen name or the inspiration for it is, if it’s important to you then stick to it and demand others do the same.

When things get really scary she calls back to the character she played and it gives her some confidence and strength. It shows some of the benefits of these games in case any readers are interested but think it’s “baby stuff” or something. These games are important, because they give players a chance to think differently and develop their creativity but also because these things stay with you outside of the game. Superheroes are important and inspiring, too, but having been a hero in your mind stays with you in a different way.

The action is well-written and the story is engrossing. It’s written for kids and I think it’s good for that (mostly, but I’ll get to that later). But it doesn’t talk down to the reader and it’s also very readable and enjoyable as an adult. A good thing for parents and kids to read together, especially if they’re also playing the game. The action scenes are great examples of Fate scenarios and I recommend this for GMs looking for some inspiration. There’s a comment at some point about how you could hear the capital letters when Sally names things, a cool nod to Fate’s aspects and what they look like to the characters. Sally’s not creating aspects in-universe, but she has an understanding of what this thing she’s made (she’s an inventor) is at its core and she can use it well.

The villain of the story is very much an over-the-top cartoon villain, something that is noted and ridiculed quite a bit. But at the same time, he’s so dangerously unpredictable and obsessed with being respected and feared that people do what he wants. They know he’s ridiculous, but he just might kill you for laughing in his general direction, let alone questioning his actions outright.

I’m not sure this is the direction I’d go for my adventures, but it’s a good reminder that you don’t really need to be “realistic” (whatever that means given the sorts of settings and abilities present in an RPG) to engage players and create serious obstacles. Having trouble finding a motivation for a realistic human villain? It’s cool, just pull a totally bizarre one from a kids’ cartoon. It works, those characters can be a lot of fun. And you can still do serious things with those over-the-top characters, like how the Steel Don likes to think he’s the most impressive and capable but he’s really insecure and his bullying is the way he deals with the worry that no one actually respects him.

Now for the things I didn’t like about it. Sigh.

Alright, so one of the major issues in this book is Sally being Not Like Other Girls. (I added the caps, but I mean, it’s practically an aspect.) She doesn’t have feelings or like boys or wear dresses (when she doesn’t have to). She’s always hanging out with the boys and doing Boy Things and that’s all fine, but the way the book looks down its nose at “girl things” and has Sally ashamed of them definitely isn’t. I think her journey past this kind of thinking is supposed to be part of the point, and she does have a thought about being able to do it all and crying being maybe not the worst thing ever at the end. That’s good. But I don’t think it lands well and that little bit at the end really doesn’t make up for a whole book of “Ew, girls. Girls are so silly, I’m not like them. What are these, tears? Nah, I don’t cry, this is just awesomeness leaking out through my eyes. DON’T LOOK AT ME.”

Femmephobia is a major pet peeve of mine and this book had loads of it. So that’s a very personal concern and might not bother other readers at all. But if it’s something that does bother you as well, just know it’s a thing here.

There’s also a lot of related issues that don’t show up as much but are definitely noticeable. Apparently there’s a slur somewhere in the first half, I didn’t write down the page number and can’t find it now but it bothered me enough to make a note of it. I think I was expecting a lot more of them to show up at the time and didn’t think it was worth citing every one. The kids go to Chinatown and there’s lots of “oh how exotic” commentary, which is normal for the setting but very not normal or ok with our current understanding. And in a world where kids fly around with improvised jetpacks and villains have metal faces, maybe the realism doesn’t need to start and end with racism and sexism.

The villain is referred to as “crazy,” which is another pet peeve of mine. But in this case, he’s dangerous because he’s crazy, rather than because, you know, he’s willing to kill or he’s obsessed with power or any of the things that are noted about him before Sally decides he’s actually literally “crazy.” Ugh.

But probably my biggest single issue is the book’s approach to violence. This was something that concerned me about Young Centurions, but it’s much more on display and with all my worries confirmed here. See, YC doesn’t want to make things un-friendly to kids by having things like character death. It’s a kids’ game! Keep it fun and light, you don’t want bad guys to be shooting and killing kids! But you have to make it fun and dangerous, so make sure the bad guys are shooting at kids but that they get stopped by slightly-less-bad guys or the bullets don’t actually hit them because they have main character immunity. All the fun of playing with guns without any of the risks!

And that’s not just bad because I don’t like the idea of violence in general and not only when it leads to actual death. It teaches kids that guns and violence are awesome and exciting and that these things don’t have consequences. And that’s a very dangerous thing to teach, considering how many gun deaths are caused by kids who got their hands on one. Kids can and should understand death. They should know things have consequences. And they definitely shouldn’t be learning that violence is super awesome if they’re not the ones at risk from it.

Overall, it’s an exciting and well-written book brought way down by it’s selective realism, racism/sexism/ableism, and approach to violence. I’m intrigued by the story but disgusted by the ethical issues I see in it and probably would not want my kids reading it. At the very least, not without a lot of discussion as we go.

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