Friday, November 10, 2017

League of American Traitors by Matthew Landis, 2017

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When seventeen year-old Jasper is approached at the funeral of his deadbeat father by a man claiming to be an associate of his deceased parents, he’s thrust into a world of secrets tied to America’s history—and he’s right at the heart of it.

First, Jasper finds out he is the sole surviving descendant of Benedict Arnold, the most notorious traitor in American history. Then he learns that his father’s death was no accident. Jasper is at the center of a war that has been going on for centuries, in which the descendants of the heroes and traitors of the American Revolution still duel to the death for the sake of their honor.

His only hope to escape his dangerous fate on his eighteenth birthday? Take up the research his father was pursuing at the time of his death, to clear Arnold’s name.

Whisked off to a boarding school populated by other descendants of notorious American traitors, it’s a race to discover the truth. But if Jasper doesn’t find a way to uncover the evidence his father was hunting for, he may end up paying for the sins of his forefathers with his own life.

Like a mash-up of
National Treasure and Hamilton, Matthew Landis’s debut spins the what-ifs of American history into a heart-pounding thriller steeped in conspiracy, clue hunting, and danger.
(256 pages)

Okay, let me start by getting rid of the elephant in the room: Hamilton. I have actually never seen Hamilton (or listened to its full soundtrack), but I know enough about the musical to hazard a pretty good guess that League of American Traitors is nothing like it. Sure, the book's got some mentions of Revolutionary War-era historical figures, but they're definitely not the focus of the book. Instead, League of American Traitors is basically a modern-day adventure/spy novel trying hard to capture some of the vibe of National Treasure while really reminding me of a rather watered-down nonmagical Harry Potter.

I'm sorry, was that overly negative? I don't mean to be, but I'm having a hard time swallowing my disappointment. I was really excited for League of American Traitors, I thought it would be thrilling and realistic and educational at the same time. It may have been education at parts (when the author wasn't, you know, making stuff up to serve the plot), and thrilling occasionally, but I just couldn't get past all the unrealistic and ridiculous stuff that the book expected me to accept. My biggest issue with the plot is the whole premise: a league of the descendants of "good guys" from history decided to hunt down every single descendant of the "bad guys" of American history and force them to participate in one duel. If they win, they're left in peace; if they lose, they're dead; if they flee, they spend the rest of their life on the run.

You know what my biggest problem with this premise is? The idea that people who are descended from famous figures from 300 years ago care so much about some ancient grudge that they're willing to make all of their children participate in duels to the death. That just wouldn't happen. Also, why is everyone so hung up on the past, anyway? We are not our ancestors. We are not responsible for what they did in the past. If you trace my family tree far enough back, I've got some bad people back there, too. But I don't define myself by the choices made by my distant ancestors hundreds of years ago, and I don't see why the people in the book do either!

The other issue I have with the book is the fact that it takes all of history at face value. All the historical figures are sorted into either the "good guy" or the "bad guy" category with no room for nuance. Jasper does bemoan this at one point, when he questions why Benedict Arnold is remembered only for his betrayal and not for any of the amazing battles he won for the cause before then, but I would have liked to take things a step further: why does everyone assume that the "good guys" were good? Why is fighting against Britain inherently better than remaining a Loyalist? Is it just because we won the Revolutionary War, so history was written by the victors? I for one would have probably been a Loyalist, if we're being perfectly honest–I just don't really think our excuses for breaking off from Britain were as great as everyone thought. And some of the classifications seemed very arbitrary, like the fact that Thomas Paine (author of the extremely patriotic Common Sense) was classified as a traitor for a pamphlet he wrote after the war that the patriots didn't agree with, or that one "traitor" ancestor was a slave who fled his patriot owners and fought for the British because he was promised freedom afterword. I think it's frankly horrible that this poor man was branded a "traitor" to some cause he really couldn't care less about and his descendants were forced to participate in this gruesome tradition of deadly duels. And setting all this aside, I think it's ridiculous that all of these people who pride themselves on being descended from the people who fought for American freedoms (only for white male landowners at the beginning, but still) are completely disrespecting those same freedoms to force people into duels against their will.

Honestly, though, I should stop and talk about the positives. I did like some of the side characters, though Jasper seemed like a very bland character without much personality of his own–and I completely disagree with an immoral choice that he made during the climax. I would say that the book could be good for younger kids who love spy stories and history, but it's got some pretty terrible languge (including several instances of the f-word), so I don't want to recommend it to anyone who's not ready for that. Basically, if you've read my semi-ranting review and still think you'd like to read the book, and you don't mind some bad language, then go ahead and give League of American Traitors a try. Maybe you can find something in it that I couldn't.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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