Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is part of the Spirit of the Century universe that includes Dinocalypse Now, Beyond Dinocalypse, Khan of Mars, and King Khan. Although many of those novels are suitable for tween readers, this is the first novel specifically aimed at the middle grade set. It’s the first novel in a series that follows Sally Slick and Jet Black through their very early teens and explores how they become young Centurions (people who are destined to try to make a difference in the world).
Set in 1914, Sally and her friend Jet live in rural Illinois where Sally races tractors, builds fascinating contraptions in her family’s barn, and gets in trouble a lot at school. Then Sally’s oldest brother brings some trouble home, and Sally and Jet get pulled into a plot that involves mobsters, a man with a metal face, and killer robots.
Despite a somewhat historical setting, Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is very much a pulp novel of high adventure and it quickly veers away from realism. It’s a good introduction to the Spirit of the Century universe, and for those already familiar with the setting, it’s fun to see where these familiar characters came from.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Sexism & Gender Stereotypes
As a girl in 1914 and the only girl in a large family, Sally faces a good bit of sexism. Some of it is stereotypical gender roles—of course Sally is expected to cook dinner, even though she’s terrible at it and has other things she needs to be doing. Caring for her baby brother often falls to her as well, although we also see the older boys helping out with the baby occasionally.
The boys in the neighborhood don’t hesitate to put Sally down simply for being a girl. They make fun of her for defying their expectations of how a girl should dress and behave. However, she’s quite good at meeting and defeating them on their own terms—such as routinely beating them at tractor racing. Sometimes her brothers stand up for her, and sometimes they side with the neighborhood boys.
Sally is often ashamed of being too girly, such as when she cries, and she’s equally ashamed of not being girly enough, such as when she does just about anything else. She feels destined to let everyone down because she doesn’t fit in anywhere.
Jet, as a sympathetic kid who stands up for the underdog even when he’s the underdog himself, also defies the gender roles that people would like to impose on him. And he’s routinely beaten up for this. To the reader, it’s always clear that Jet is doing the right thing, even when he pays a harsh cost for it.
There’s a good bit of action, which involves a good bit of beating people up. A bully absolutely pummels Jet, and it’s fairly graphic. Later he’s hurt quite badly, perhaps in a life-threatening way. Sally makes a tear gas bomb that works a little too well. There are a lot of battles, some of which involve farm equipment, and people get pretty bloodied. People shoot at the kids, although usually they’re just trying to frighten them, not hurt them. When some of the gangsters do start trying to actually shoot the kids, it ratchets up the tension and makes even some of the other bad guys uncomfortable. It’s obvious that the main bad guy hasn’t hesitated to hurt and kill people, although he only threatens kids occasionally.
Alcohol, Drugs, and Smoking
Sally once tasted whiskey—it burned. A sympathetic bad guy smokes cigarettes. Opium addicts are mentioned in passing. At the Golden Pagoda in Chicago’s Chinatown, there are a lot of very drunk men.
The bad guy murdered a gangster. His ghost is on a quest to protect his family. When Sally is hit with a ray that lets her see and talk to ghosts, they become allies of a sort.
Family is really important. Sally and her brothers often get on each other’s nerves, but they are also always there for each other when it matters. When one brother betrays this unspoken pact, it hurts a lot. Sally’s mother is exhausted and overworked, with her husband frequently away and a colicky baby, so she leans pretty heavily on Sally. Sally is terrified of letting her mother down and is convinced she’s not the daughter her mother wants. There’s a very touching scene at the end where her mother lays those fears to rest and lets Sally know she’s proud of her. Jet’s dad ends up being proud of his son as well.
There are some secrets kept from family, parents, and other well-meaning people, but for the most part it’s explained in a way that fits the plot. If Sally had time, she probably would have told someone she was headed to Chicago with Jet. When they lie to her mother, it’s because they fear for the mother and baby’s safety, not because they need her out of the way.
We see the early signs of Jet’s infatuation with Sally. Sally isn’t at all sure what she thinks about Jet in that way, and it occasionally gets uncomfortable for her. For the most part, they’re best friends and that comes before everything else.
Some of the characters are drawn broadly. There may be some cultural stereotypes, especially in the Chinatown scene, that might bother some readers.
Someone says “Damn.” There may be some other mild curse words—my daughter is much more aware of that than I am!
It’s a fast paced novel with lots of action—action that’s primarily driven by the kids. It’s appropriate for ages 10 and up, maybe a bit younger if you read it with them. Although it has a female protagonist, I think it will appeal to boys as much as girls.
Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate by Carrie Harris
Published in 2013 by Evil Hat Productions
First in the Young Centurions series
Read the ebook during my final proofread