Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon by S. S. Taylor

The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's CanyonIf you love adventurous kids, mysterious maps, hidden canyons, and steam-powered everything, you won’t want to miss The Expeditioners, the first installment in what promises to be a very exciting middle grade series.

The West kids — Zander, Kit, and MK — are the orphaned children of famous explorer Alexander West, who rose to fame and fortune exploring new lands, then died under mysterious circumstances, leaving the three kids to fend for themselves. And when I say new lands, I really mean New Lands: Several decades earlier, after computers and electricity were proven unreliable and were discarded, explorers discovered New Lands hidden amidst the lands already known. Apparently, all those earlier maps were wrong, and the globes we all rely upon are really just quaint relics. The current world includes places such as the New North Polar Sea, Fazia, and Deloia, and exploring and cartography are among the most esteemed and  sought-after vocations.

Unfortunately, the BNDL (Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands) is in control and is awfully shady. Current policy seems to be to discover resource-rich new worlds and then plunder them for all they’re worth. It’s becoming clear to the West kids that perhaps their dad wasn’t entirely pleased with BNDL’s approach — and it’s starting to seem that the feeling was mutual. The kids are being watched, and when our narrator, Kit, receives a package from a stranger in the market, it sets off a chain of events that will lead the kids into danger as well as excitement.

As The Expeditioners moves forward, Kit and his siblings, along with their new friend Sukey, daughter of a famous explorer herself, set out to solve a puzzle left behind by Alexander. Hidden maps and secret codes lead the gang to a daring escape from BNDL agents and on a mad cross-country dash toward a legendary treasure lost centuries earlier in the canyons of Arizona. The government wants the treasure too, and it’s a race to see who will find it first — if it exists at all.

I read this book with my 11-year-old (who still likes me to read to him at bedtime — hurray!). Let me just cut to the chase here — we both loved The Expeditioners.

The world-building is terrific, as we are introduced to a steampunky society in which the ability to build, tinker, and create is of utmost importance, as are big heaps of courage and a willingness to leap into the unknown. The author takes our own world and technology and spins it into something at once familiar yet completely new. There are no cars, but that’s okay: People travel by steam trains, dirigibles, even steam-powered bicycles and IronSteeds, steam-powered mechanical horses.

The West kids are all talented and honorable. Zander, the oldest at 14, is brave and protective; Kit is a budding cartographer like his dad, and little sister MK can fix anything. Along with their pilot friend Sukey, they demonstrate courage and conviction over and over again, relying on their smarts to get in and out of tight scrapes, with an absolute devotion to one another and to their mission.

A hint of preachiness creeps in when the kids begin to understand the unscrupulous dealings of BNDL and realize how poorly the indigenous populations of the new worlds are being treated. Of course, the PC-lecture tone didn’t faze my son, but I found it a bit heavy-handed.

The storyline is tightly woven and packed with action. After the initial chapters, which seemed about to bog down in exposition, the pace picks up, and we get to truly know the West kids through their adventure, seeing their initiative and daring, as well as their commitment to their father’s memory and to their family as a whole.

Black and white illustrations by Katherine Roy add to the hip feel of the book, bringing the kids to life and adding in details such as gears, clockwork, and goggles that really enhance the story.

The ending makes clear that there is more to come, as the children complete their treasure-seeking adventure and are given a fresh opportunity for new experiences in a new setting. (I’m being intentionally vague here — you won’t get spoilers out of me!) My kiddo and I are both looking forward to seeing how Zander, Kit, and MK fare along their new path, and we really can’t wait for the next Expeditioners book!

Summing it all up: The Expeditioners seems like a perfect choice for middle grade readers, and it’s smart, savvy, and hip enough that parents will enjoy it too. A decidedly different adventure story that’s full of intellectual challenges too, with brave, independent characters of both genders and a range of ages, set in a steampunky American Southwest — this book is one I could see appealing to a wide audience for years to come.

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The details:

Title: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon
Author: S. S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy
Publisher: McSweeney’s McMullens
Publication date: 2012
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library