Written by Matthew Landis — This debut YA thriller is set in the modern day, but with one foot firmly planted in American history. The promising idea underlying the book is that the descendants of American heroes of wars past – the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World Wars I and II – belong to a shadowy group called the True Sons of Liberty. Equally, the descendants of history’s notorious traitors belong to the shadowy and eponymous League of American Traitors.
The import of this is that when a traitor descendant turns 18, he or she will be challenged to a duel and must accept the challenge or go into a lifetime of hiding. If the descendants choose the duel and survive, they are free to live in peace thereafter. These rules were established in an 1820 code that states: “It is universally accepted that vileness, like honor, passes from father to son.” Unscientific as that assertion is, the True Sons – or the Libertines, as they call themselves – believe it and stake their lives on it.
The novel begins with 17-year-old Jasper burying his father, who’d been mostly absent from his life, just a few months after his mother died. At the funeral, he meets a mysterious man who later becomes his mentor. With no family to fall back on and faced with being put into a foster home, Jasper sells the family possessions and heads out of town, but a freak accident puts a stop to this plan. The teenager striking out on his own, relieved of the obligations and responsibilities of family, is an attractive theme in this genre.
From there until the book’s end, the action is pretty much non-stop. Jasper learns he is the only surviving descendant of notorious War of Independence traitor Benedict Arnold. It transpires that his father was away from home so much because he was trying to track down information that would help Jasper avoid the duel. “We all die, Jasper,” his mentor says. “The question is, what will we die pursuing, and is that cause worthy of our lives?”
Since Jasper has been threatened outside the formally established rules of The Code, it seems clear that his father’s research posed a unique and immediate threat to the Libertines. The League has his dad’s research papers, but no-one knows what he was working on. If Jasper can solve this riddle, his case can go before The Arbiter, who settles disputes between the two groups and is somewhat implausibly the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
You have to just accept the underlying premise here and not dwell on facts like how many, many descendants of these early citizens – heroes and traitors alike – there probably are these days. For example, 102 pilgrims landed after the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower. Today, some 35 million Americans can trace their lineage back to this group.
To provide Jasper with the resources to analyse his father’s research and take it further, to isolate him from his enemies, and to provide handgun training for the duel, should that be necessary, his mentor sends him to a well-guarded school for League children in rural Vermont. There he meets four friends who accompany him on his journey toward the adult world.
Perhaps because the book was written for a YA audience, author Landis keeps the interactions of these teens at a slangy and superficial level reflective of their relative immaturity. However, some of the adult portrayals are overly stereotyped and the dialogue is a touch Hollywood. For the most part, there’s little exploration of the backgrounds of the characters’ ancestors, which seems like a lost opportunity. Perhaps it will interest teens in delving further.
The book nevertheless raises thought-provoking and unexpectedly timely issues, in light of the current US debate about statues to the leaders of the Confederacy – heroes to some and traitors to others – the notion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is never raised. When discussing the impact on the duelist of actually killing another person, one of Jasper’s friends admonishes him. “Don’t rationalize it. That’s what the Libertines do – use honor to make murder okay.”
We don’t cover the YA shelf very widely, but here are some more books in the category.
Sky Pony Press
CFL Rating: 4 stars