The Tyrant's Daughter
Knopf Books for Young Readers
February 11, 2014
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From a former CIA officer comes the riveting account of a royal Middle Eastern family exiled to the American suburbs.
When her father is killed in a coup, 15-year-old Laila flees from the war-torn middle east to a life of exile and anonymity in the U.S. Gradually she adjusts to a new school, new friends, and a new culture, but while Laila sees opportunity in her new life, her mother is focused on the past. She’s conspiring with CIA operatives and rebel factions to regain the throne their family lost. Laila can’t bear to stand still as an international crisis takes shape around her, but how can one girl stop a conflict that spans generations?
J.C. Carleson delivers a fascinating account of a girl—and a country—on the brink, and a rare glimpse at the personal side of international politics.
*Bonus Backmatter includes a note about the author's CIA past, and a commentary by RAND researcher and president of ARCH International, Dr. Cheryl Benard. Recommendations for further reading are also included.
Fifteen-year-old Laila has a lot more to deal with in The Tyrant's Daughter than simply a new town and new school. For her it's a new country and an entirely new way of life as well. After her father, King - or so Laila has always known, believed - in assassinated in a coup, she, her mother and younger brother move to the United States. The apartment in the suburbs of Washington DC is a far cry from the palace they're accustomed to.
As Laila is adjusting to this new life, her brother seems to be taking to America nearly seamlessly but her mother is still focused on home - or where it used to be - and the past.
Laila is a great narrator. At fifteen she's old enough to see certain things a younger character (like her brother) might not, yet is also old enough to want to question things. The more Laila's mother tries to keep her out of things, apart from what's going on, the more it makes Laila want to find answers. It would be true of, likely, any character her age but is especially true of Laila given her past, this vastly different new life and what she's learning of her father.
There was maybe not as much of the cultural clash, the adjustment issues that I was expecting Laila and her family to experience. We learn that she's from a (fictional) Middle Eastern country and is used to a Muslim society. While her family - both in societal and economic position - allowed Laila more freedom, she is used to wearing a veil, of having different expectations and privileges than males. Laila does not wear a veil in the United States and I wish there had been more about that. There's a passage, about their past, that explains why her mother is not wearing one, but Laila's change is a passing mention.
Some more introspection from Laila and/or more of a look into the past, may have been a nice addition. The looks we do get into the past are both very telling of the family's power as well as what their country was like. The scenes are chosen very well to have the most impact, the most poignancy.
Those things to do affect Laila seem well chosen, too. The smaller aspects of life in the United States seem to give her the most pause and cause the most anxiety. Things that no one here, including her friends, give a second thought are incredibly different for Laila. Though her country is fictional, these things are very real - for those from countries undergoing similar struggles - and are definitely something to notice and remember.
The commentary at the end of the novel by Dr Chery Benard, is very much worth reading. It gives more of a 'true life,' historical perspective to the novel you've just read. Benard's commentary contains not only very interesting information that will, perhaps, cause you to see The Tyrant's Daughter's ending differently, but also some very thought provoking questions. Ones made more real having read Laila and her family's story. The essay is not to be skipped.
Despite Laila's country being fictional, it contains enough similarities to actual nations that it's very easy to immerse yourself in Laila's world while also thinking of a broader nonfiction reality. It's great that the family remains so much at the center of The Tyrant's Daughter - both the good sand the bad; while the story is Laila, her family's past, present and future are key. A world most will never experience is made very real through her adjustment to a world most are more familiar with and the family dynamic adds quite a bit.
Other books you may also enjoy: Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo by Zlata Filipovic and the 'Additional Reading' offered at the end of the reviewed novel
thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for my copy to review