Book Review: "The Tyrant's Daughter" by J. C. Carleson

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Title: The Tyrant's Daughter
Author: J. C. Carleson
Genre: YA, Contemporary Fiction, Political Fiction
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Source: NetGalley/Publisher
Buy: Amazon

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.

Laila is a teenage girl from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. At first, all she knows is that her now-deposed and deceased father was a “king” – and only when she and her family are refugees in the United States, does she know that her father was actually a brutal dictator.

As she adjusts to her new culture, friendships, and an awakening sense of her past, she delves into a world of betrayal and conspiracy. Her mother is working with the CIA to regain her family’s power and set her son Bastion on the “throne.” Manipulated and yet empowered, Laila learns that her storied, princess-like childhood came at the expense of her country’s people.

On the way, she befriends the son of missionaries, and gets to know a family with ties to the rebel faction back in her country. There are some really authentic teen moments which I enjoyed, especially when the girls prepare (which involves slathering on make-up and shimmying into sparkly dresses) for the high school dance. It gave a realistic glimpse into her adjustment to American life. Something else I really enjoyed? Scenes where Laila speaks about how American food items, like cereals, are luxury items in the Middle East. It gave a touch of actual realism to a story that often tries too hard to be realistic and current.

While I raced to finish this book (which, admittedly, is highly readable), ultimately it left a bad taste in my mouth. While the writing was excellent, I didn’t find the big twist at the end all that surprising, and I was annoyed at how often Laila seemed to be confused. I was pissed off that her mother was manipulating everyone around her to return to luxury, despite the cost – which could ultimately be the loss of her son’s life. Towards the end, Laila beats herself up for what her family has done to her country, but it’s never resolved and I felt as if Laila would just return to what she was used to…luxury.

Something else I didn’t appreciate was that the Middle Eastern country that Laila comes from was never specified. I’m sure that was meant to broaden the message, but I found it tactless. The idea that all Middle Eastern countries have similar enough cultures that they could blend together – or that the revolutions in each country were similar enough to be combined – well, frankly, that was insulting.

I guess I come at this from a variety of different perspectives: as a Syrian-American who watches and reads as much news of the “Arab Spring” as I can handle, as a student of international relations with a focus on the Middle East, and an anthropology buff with an interest in Arab culture. I sensed that Carleson combined facets of multiple revolutions, including tear gas attacks in Syria, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the removal of Qaddafi in Libya. And I didn’t like that at all. I feel like the cultural, historical, and religious background to the revolutions/rebellion is completely glossed over - really, it's barely discussed. I do give the author kudos for writing about an often-ignored topic, though.

Something I did enjoy, however, was Carleson’s sneakily introspective look at American culture, and her tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a CIA agent. I actually found the CIA agent to be one of the most likable and relatable characters. He does what he has to do, and doesn’t make apologies for it. While I don’t necessarily agree with his viewpoints, I think he was a well-layered character.

Another favorite character was Amir, the son of an imprisoned and tortured rebel in Laila’s country. I completely understood why he was both frustrated and mesmerized by her. What do you do when you come face to face with the daughter of your enemy, only to find out she has no clue about what her father was really like? His internal struggle was fascinating.

“The people here are children," he says. "All of them. Even the grown-ups."
  “I’m half Here. I’m half There. I’m a girl divided, which is to say I’m no one at all.” 
I’m still torn about whether Leila could really have been that sheltered. Even when she breaks out of her shell and does some research, there was still a major sense of denial. I don’t need to find a female character likeable; in fact, I find that trend cloying. But I do want a female character with direction, and one that isn’t just a sounding board for a very American sense of values. If you ever wanted to know what would happen if someone who doesn’t really know about Arab culture (yes, I understand the author is a CIA agent/analyst, but that also represents a bias that I felt wasn’t really discussed in the afterword) wrote a book about what it would be like for a privileged Middle Eastern girl to move to America, this is the book for you. 

In the meantime, I was hoping to read a young adult novel about the Middle Eastern experience and the Arab Spring that discussed these controversial and emotional topics with both depth and accuracy. In my opinion, The Tyrant’s Daughter missed the mark.

Two stars.