The League of Seven

I'm sure that in Geekdom, Steampunk is one of those things that is cool, so therefore it is no longer cool (like how if somebody does/wears/eats something and it's labelled "hipster," it's no longer "hipster.").  This is a confusing facet of our society, but I can't pretend to explain it.

However, since I am not a hipster and I'm kind of a bad geek, I still enjoy steampunk.  I loved Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, and Phillip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy are probably the best YA steampunks out there.  Seeing more kid-oriented steampunk excites me as a librarian, so I was eager to read Alan Gratz' The League of Seven.


What could have been a fantastic juvenile steampunk floundered under the weight of an uneven plot, stereotypical characters, references that pretty much no child will ever catch, and a really troubling portrayal of Native Americans.

The novel follows Archie*, whose parents are librarians and members of a secret society called the Septemberists.  The goal of the Septemberists is to keep the world safe from Horrors Out of Time, Old Ones who occasionally rise up in monster form and attack humanity.  If you've noticed the nod to Lovecraft, hooray!  If you're a child who realizes Gratz is referencing Lovecraft, I might have to talk to your parents.  Anyway.  The whole cycle-of-monsters threat strongly recalls Percy Jackson and the Kane Chronicles books, which (broadly) deal with new iterations or incarnations of heroes to save the world from old, mean gods.  Hmmm...

The Septemberists are the latest incarnation of humans to fight the Mangleborn and Manglespawn (those nasty beasties!) that previous heroes fought and imprisoned at various points under the ground.  There is always a League of Seven to protect humanity from the Manglespawn, and it always contains one of each of the following: "a tinker, a law-bringer, a scientist, a trickster, a warrior, a strong man, and a hero."  So, it's like the steampunk JLA.  The current (of the book's time) Septemberist Council consists of:

Frederick Douglass (law-bringer member), identified as having "wild, frizzy hair" and not for being, you know, a fantastic lawyer, author, and orator.

General Robert E. Lee, member of the United Nations Army (warrior member)

"Lacrosse star John Two-sticks" (I have no idea which member he is)

Why is Robert E. Lee the warrior par excellence?  Had the American Civil War not occurred, would he even have risen to such prominence?  And I'll get to the treatment of Native Americans in a bit, but, yeesh.

So anyway, Archie and his Tik-Tok (a windup man/mechanical man/clockwork man) Mr. Rivets find a Manglespawn in the super-secret lair of the League of Seven.  This Manglespawn creates little Alien-esque face-sucker-type creatures that attach to the back of the neck and control their hosts (I feel like I just read this in Robogenesis).  Archie's mom and dad, as well as the current League of Seven, fall under the control of the Manglespawn and attack him.  The Mangleborn who is trying to escape, Malacar Ahasherat, the Swarm Queen (think big bad beastie who controls insects), brings Archie's mom and dad down to Florida to join up with her ally Evil Thomas Edison, who is using Lecktricty to fuel the Swarm Queen's powers and help her escape.  Archie's parents, being librarians, have read about and know the keys to opening the Swarm Queen's prison.  Then all this stuff happens and a Scottish kid (who of course wears a kilt and has an uncertain accent--by which I mean the author is uncertain whether or not to deploy the Scottish accent, so it appears at irregular intervals) named Fergus get special powers, escapes the employ of Edison, and joins Archie.  Another young person, a girl named Hachi who's a wizard with weaponry, ends up joining their little party as well.

Aided by Mr. Rivets, the three have to find a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen and save Archie's parents.  From here on out, the story gets extremely convoluted as the three travel by airship, battle other airships, desecrate a tomb, get betrayed, split up (dear Lord, for the love of all that is good, don't split up! Didn't anyone learn anything from Scooby-Doo?), die (sort of), solve puzzles, and do various other steampunky things like shoot rayguns and ride locomotives.

After the encounter with Edison, Archie's hair turns pure white, while Fergus gains the ability to control and channel lektricity.  Archie feels that they are the new League of Seven, with Fergus being the tinkerer and Hachi being the warrior.  Since he's also exceedingly modest, Archie casts himself as the hero, even though he's having nightmares where the Swarm Queen speaks to him, calling him Jandal a Haad and hinting that he is actually a Bad Guy.  He also discovers that his parents have been keeping a Secret Journal about him (dun dun DUNNN) and he wants to know why they were spying on him kinda-sorta.

Yes, the story of the ethically-torn Chosen One is here again.  Riordan made it work in Percy Jackson with a lot of humor, fun characters, and research.  Here, it just feels tired and shoehorned into a story that has a lot of other stuff going on.

In this alternate past, the United States never became the United States.  European settlers did not maintain control of the land, and the main superpower of the North American continent is the United Nations, which is basically an enlarged version of the Iroquois Confederacy.  The European settlers are referred to as Yankees and have very little political say.  It's a really interesting twist on history, and I think it really had potential.

Unfortunately, the characters who populate the United Nations draw on so many stereotypes that I sometimes wanted to scream.  Hachi, the Seminole girl who ends up joining up with Archie after a battle, is typecast as the wild warrior with almost superhuman fighting skills.  Here's her initial description:  "A First Nations girl a little older than Archie.  She was thin and tall, with dark brown skin and black hair.  A Seminole, Archie guessed.  Maybe Muskogee."  Hachi sits cross-legged a lot, and is described as "the war-chief of their misfit tribe."  I did a double, no, a triple-take when I read that.  Did I just read that?  I read that.  It exists.  I started feeling a little bit ill because I was so angry with how Native Americans were being discussed.

Later in the story, Fergus hops a ride aboard a "Cheyenne-built Iron Chief" train which is attacked by Muskogee.  He encounters "a Muskogee warrior with war paint on his face" and then zaps him with lektricity.

Meanwhile, Archie is presumed dead, but has been rescued by a man named John Otter, who places him  "in a hot, smoky room filled with jars and medical equipment and books.  The air smelled like herbs and dirt."  Since he feels pretty good, he attends a dance where "men and women in costumes decorated with beads and feathers and animal skins danced around in a circle, while the spectators beat drums and chanted in Cherokee."  Because, you know, a Yankee would totally be invited to participate in a spiritual ceremony where people wear "costumes."  Couldn't the author at least have said regalia?

The main Native peoples mentioned in the book are located from the Midwest eastward--no mention at all of anyone beyond Oklahoma.  The way the people are presented in the story, it sounds like the majority of people living in the United Nations are either Cherokee or Muskogee (Mvskoke; later called Creek), since they are on the brink of war in the book.  All of the names are Anglicized names--if the Iroquois had succeeded in bringing peace to the land, wouldn't each nation have been using their own names for themselves in their own languages, instead of the English versions?

All the press I've seen for this book is marketed for younger readers--maybe middle grade.  However, Gratz includes a lot of in-jokes and history twists that will probably sail over the intended audience's collective head, and which are therefore unnecessary.  For example:

  • " 'We're in a Franklin cage.'  'A what?' Archie asked.  'A who?' Hachi asked.  'Did someone just say "Franklin cage"?' Tesla said over the speaker.  Fergus put a hand out to the wall and touched it, but nothing happened.  He nodded.  'Franklin was a Yankee inventor.  He experimented with lektricity,' Fergus said.  'Edison had some of his old papers.  I saw them.  Franklin was a genius.' "  Older readers will recognize this as a play on the Faraday cage.  Benjamin Franklin did, in fact, discover the principle behind the Faraday cage in the 18th century, but Michael Faraday actually built one in the 1830s.  Since this novel is set in the 1870s, I don't see why Gratz couldn't have just left it as a "Faraday cage" unless he really didn't like Michael Faraday and explicitly wanted him dead in this alternate history. 
  • As they are attacked by a Meka-Ninja Tik Tok, Archie yells " 'I don't understand what's happened to them!  They're not allowed to hurt humans!  It's the first law of Tik Toks!' "  Ha ha.   A ha-ha ha.  Yes.  Asimov's First Law of Robotics.  All nine-year-olds know that one.
  • The motto of the girls' school that Hachi used to attend was "Flectere si nequeo superos, Achaeronta movebo," a quote from Virgil's Aeneid.  Because all middle-schoolers have read the Aeneid.  
  • Edison refers to the prophecies of "Batty Blavatsky."  Ditto all of the above but just apply to 19th-century occultist Madame Blavatsky.
The pacing is also really off.  For most of the book, the main characters run around trying to find special objects and clues, and the final battle doesn't take place until 95% of the way through.  I'm still not entirely sure what happened during that battle, either, as it was pretty all over the place.

There was also a really bizarre scene set in Nova Scotia, where a museum/park ranger-type lady approaches the group and says, " 'Comment pouvoir je vois aide?"  Wait, what?  He just plugged that into Google translate, didn't he?  They claim that the woman is speaking Acadian (Acadian French).  Look, Acadian (and also Québécois) are still dialects of French.  They follow standard French word order, although the vocabulary and pronunciation is often quite different.  What the woman says in the book is a literal translation of "How many I help you?" except the verbs are all wrong and in the wrong order.  She should have said something like, "Comment pourrais-je vois aider?" or "Comment puis-je vous aider" or even "Comment est-ce que je peux vous aider?"  It's not like no one in the world speaks French and the author has absolutely no one to whom to turn when he's writing a basic sentence in French, for pete's sake.

I'm sure this will get a lot of hoopla-whoop-de-do as a steampunk for kids, and that people will say I'm being overly sensitive, but I disagree.  This book was difficult to follow, had unsympathetic main characters, and a really uncomfortable treatment of Native Americans.  I would not recommend this, but would skip to other, better kid-friendly steampunks instead.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley, which only had the cover art by Brett Helquist, and none of the interior art.  Phooey, as I quite like Helquist.



*Only a few days after finishing the book, I could not remember the name of the main male character.  I thought maybe his name was Timmy or something.  That may tell you something about the memorability of his character.  Or the weakness of my neuronal bonding.  You choose.

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