Book Review: Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace

Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace returns us to the world of Young Centurions and to the adventures of Sally Slick and Jet Black, first seen in Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate. This time around we get right into the action as Sally fumes over being shut out of the local tractor races. With the circus in town, Sally decides to race “unofficially”; of course, Sally leaves everyone else in the dust. After showing up the local bullies and drawing the attention of the circus owner, Sally’s prized tractor goes missing!

Author Carrie Harris turns out prose with precision and clarity, aimed at a teen audience with an adult reading level. Her action scenes left me breathless and her description of Sally’s and Jet’s perspective on their adventures plunged me back through time to the days when 100 yards worth of woods around the neighborhood drainage ditch sheltered ninjas and monsters aplenty. Add in a dash of the exotic by having the two of them literally running away to join the circus and this story becomes exactly the kind of adventure I always wanted as a kid. From my current perspective, many years and much hair removed, it’s an adventure well suited to the abilities and station of the characters. It’s only an evening’s read for an adult but I consider it time well spent.

“Miniature Menace” deftly sidesteps most of the issues I complained about in “Steel Syndicate”. The opposition is well suited to the characters; even the mysterious bad guys deal with the teens at their own level, and can be effectively fought in that way. My sole complaint of any substance is that Sally and Jet seem to have been shoehorned into this book when it really should have been a Mack Silver adventure. Their motivations for getting involved with the circus are painfully contrived but quickly superseded by Mack’s part in the story.

Much is made of Sally’s conflict with the local bullies, who don’t want a girl competing in their tractor racing. The Young Centurions series attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the 1910s, but both historical records and the literature of the time depict women and teenage girls as starkly independent and broadly capable, especially in the American Midwest. The emphasis placed on her unsuitability as a mechanic and racer because she’s a girl is oddly misplaced for the time period. The idea that the bullies are objecting to her participation because she’s a girl feels awkwardly forced.

Sally’s mechanical tendencies also create tension between Sally and her father in the early part of the novel, contributing to Sally’s decision to defy her parents and undertake the search for her tractor. Again, I found the basis for the conflict to be awkward and forced, as Midwest farm girls of the era were expected to contribute to the family and run every part of the house. On the other hand, I completely empathize with Mr. Slick’s inability to understand the thoughts and actions of his teenage daughter! It’s a tribute to Harris’ ability to involve me in the story that I felt truly concerned about whether or not Sally would be able to heal her relationship with her father. The denouement scene between father and daughter alone is reason enough to put this book on any parent’s or preteen’s reading list.

While it’s also an engaging adventure novel, Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace serves as a superior introduction to the world of Young Centurions. We get introduced to several of the main characters, a circus that provides a natural springboard for adventure, the idea of the Century Club, and a wealth of suitable opposition. The structure of the story breaks down seamlessly into scenes and encounters that form a bang-on model for a game outline. This is so good that I found myself wishing the text of the novel had been incorporated into the Young Centurions RPG book instead of being published separately. The RPG desperately needed something to tie it together, and dropping chapters of the novel in between portions of the RPG text would have a been a perfect fit. As a companion piece it goes from merely a satisfying read to an essential addition to the game book.

I really liked this book. It’s a great introduction to Young Centurions, involving far more of the cast than just Sally and Jet. I really don’t feel the title does the story justice, as this is predominantly Mack Silver’s adventure. The threat of the miniature menace seems tacked on as well, but by the time it became a factor I gleefully hand-waved my concerns away in order to keep turning pages. If you are a fan of any of the Spirit of the Century products, pulp fiction in particular, or YA novels in general then I expect you will enjoy this book every bit as much as I did.

Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me as a reviewer for Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace and provided me with a digital copy of the book. I’m very much afraid that only motivated me to go ahead and pick up the print copy from my FLGS and spend a few bucks on DriveThruRPG to add it to my mobile shelf. When Sally and Jet pick up their next adventure, hopefully exploring yet another corner of the Young Centurions world, I’ll be waiting in the wings.

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Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Book Review: Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate visits a 14-year-old Sally Slick in the years before she grows into her role as a Spirit Centurion. It introduces us to Sally’s fellow Centurion Jet Black and a host of supporting characters, both villainous and otherwise. The novel sets the stage for the Young Centurions RPG, from 1910-1916. The first time I read this book I was charmed and very impressed; the second time I was still charmed but more aware of the story’s flaws. It’s a good book, the content aimed solidly at a teen and pre-teen audience with high-school reading skills.

The story: The title promises a story centered around Sally’s conflict with the Steel Syndicate, but I think a more accurate title would be “Sally Slick and Her Marvelous Racing Tractor”. Sally’s older brother has gotten involved with the organized crime ring known as the Steel Syndicate, and when he falls into their clutches it’s up to Sally to rescue him. It’s the kind of adventure that every kid dreams of having, the one where you become invaluable to the people you look up to the most and they begin to see you in new ways.

The charm: The story evokes the feel of the classic Tom Swift novels, in which the teenage heroes are the only ones in the right place at the right time with the right technology to defeat the villains. Sally hasn’t really discovered romance, a boyfriend is someone who makes you feel funny when you hold his hand. The stakes of the adventure are serious, and Sally takes them on in a manner appropriate to both her age and her time period. It compares very well to The 39 Clues, another series about extraordinary young people. It’s the kind of book I consumed voraciously as a kid.

The writing: I blew through this book in an evening; it’s not really meant for adults. The writing is aimed at elementary and middle-school kids with a high-school reading level. The story construction is straightforward, moving from plot point to plot point with direction and clarity. Author Carrie Harris keeps things moving at a good pace, not skimping on the action but still giving the reader an opportunity to catch his breath. Kids with good reading skills will enjoy this book and kids with lower-level reading skills will find it both challenging and engaging.

The content: When I read this the first time, I was really impressed by the content of the book. The characters deal with situations in a manner appropriate to their youth and to the time-period of the setting. The violence has not been sugar-coated, but neither is it graphic. The language is mostly inoffensive, with one or two curses you won’t find on a kid’s TV show; I’d still be willing to read it out loud to my mother’s grandkids. Harris avoids any kind of awkward preteen romance, opting instead for a very naturally awkward interaction when Sally suddenly realizes her best friend is a boy! This is an adventure story, accept no substitutes.

Upon reflection: I spent a little more time on my second reading and still came away favorably impressed with the story despite a few flaws. The story lacks the agency of the Tom Swift novels. Sally spends most of the novel reacting to her circumstances instead of reaching out and changing things. It leaves the reader with the impression that this character is someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen. If the Tom Swift novels predicate action on the improbable, “Steel Syndicate” is built around the implausible. It’s easier to suspend disbelief in the Swift Repellatron than to believe an organized crime syndicate led by the ego-maniacal Steel Don would first pursue their quarry to the Slick farm over a grudge and then abandon their assault without suffering a single casualty.

The story also lacks the educational value of The 39 Clues. With the story so tightly focused on Sally and her problems, it leaves the reader no time to explore the world before the advent of the Great War. The world of 1910s America was radically different from what we know today. Kids had a great deal more freedom to come and go, but going long distances was much harder. Social attitudes varied dramatically according to geography, with huge differences between urban and rural areas. The close of the previous century and advent of the new one has seen an explosion of immigration to all parts of the United States, with a corresponding culture shock for Americans both new and old. The lack of modern refrigeration, widespread electricity, or portable communication presents challenges to modern thinking that were a part of daily life at the time. There is a missed opportunity here to challenge young readers with unfamiliar ideas and situations.

The verdict: This story structure has Sally rushing from encounter to encounter, only taking time between action scenes to gear up. It feels very familiar… it feels like a role-playing game session, which I suppose is intentional. RPGs are Evil Hat’s primary product and the Young Centurions RPG in particular has a very counter-intuitive play structure. This book actually describes the structure of a Young Centurions game blow-by-blow, even to the point where the villains “concede the scene” in the climax of the final showdown. New players and Game Masters could do much worse than emulating this story for their own sessions. It makes for a fantastic adventure game for any age group, but doesn’t really hold together as a story meant for adult examination; the less critically demanding young readership ought to be extremely satisfied.

I got my copy of Sally Slick and theSteel Syndicate from the original Fate Core Kickstarter, but when Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me to review upcoming products, they also provided me with a digital version. I’ve already reviewed theYoung Centurions RPG; the next Sally Slick novel, Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace, is next on my list. I’ve really enjoyed Carrie Harris’ writing, and I’m looking forward to Sally and Jet’s next adventure. See you then!

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Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Gearing Up

OF Logo - smallSummer is upon us! Curt and I are back in the reaction chamber and gearing up for the summer. We’re looking at a wave of summer blockbusters starting with the awesomeness that is Godzilla. We talk for a little bit about the Dean Devlin/Matthew Broderick entry in the franchise. After beating that dead lizard for a while, we switch to Evil Hat’s Fate Core system. I’m prepping to release a book for the system and pushing out a Kickstarter campaign to help fund it. I’ve got some awesome artists signed on to work on the project. Check them out in the show notes! The artwork here is my own little scribbling for concept; Matt Silber is working on proper cover art and logos!

Matt Silber’s online portfolio: Ganarus

Linus Larsson’s online portfolio