|Yes, it's still winter in Maine, dipping close to zero F overnight and not breaking zero C during the day. It's snowing now.|
After her father is assassinated in a coup d'état, 15-year-old Laila escapes to the USA with her mother and her little brother. For the first time in her life, Laila attends school and mingles with boys and girls her age. Back home in the Middle East, Laila had private tutors and never left the house without a headscarf and armed guards. She was raised believing her loving father was the king, but in the USA she gets proof that he was a ruthless despot.
"Back home we had no internet. Or at least not the internet I see before me now. We had only a heavily censored, filtered version, with threatening messages decrying all but the blandest of government-approved sites as forbidden."Laila struggles to fit in with typical American teens while coming to terms with her family's legacy. Through her eyes, the American suburbs is a foreign land with bizarre customs. Wry humor lightens up the dark story:
"Around the lunch table everyone seems to have given something up - dairy, meat, gluten, sugar, carbs. Only in a land of plenty could people voluntarily go without so much."At other times the writing is poignantly raw and lyrical:
"I've been underwater for nearly a month. That's what it feels like here - a life submerged. Wave-tossed and sand-scoured. Voices around me in school sound muted and distorted; faces out of focus. I'm experiencing my new life through fathoms of water, making everything seem dreamlike and unreal, as if my brain can only accept so much change before it drowns. Gradually, though, I've been surfacing."The only one who understands Laila is Amir, an expat boy whose family was victimized by her father. Laila's loyalty is torn as her mother schemes with the CIA to regain power for her brother. The book becomes a spy thriller full of plot twists and moral ambiguity. It was hard to put down.
Overall, The Tyrant's Daughter was a strong YA debut. The writing was very good and the story was culturally sensitive. Laila was a believable and sympathetic character as were the other expats. My only criticism is that the American teen characters seemed flat by comparison and their story lines felt generic. I suspect this was intentional to allow typical teens to put the exotic story in context and to highlight contrasts. The cover is striking but misrepresents the protagonist, who wore a headscarf in her native country, not a burka. Laila dresses like a typical teen in the USA. It's wonderful to see a YA book about Middle Eastern politics which doesn't demonize Muslims.
Teachers will appreciate the extras: a Middle East reading list, a note from the author describing her experiences and a fascinating commentary by Dr. Cheryl Benard drawing parallels to the experience of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. This fascinating book would work very well in the classroom for ages 12 and up. The Tyrant's Daughter was released in February 2014. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly.
Reviewer's Disclaimer: I was pre-approved for a free digital galley from Netgalley/Random House.
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