52 in 52: The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson

[This review is based on an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) digital edition published by the Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers imprint of Random House Children’s Books in 2014, and provided by NetGalley.]

Here’s the deal:
The Tyrant’s Daughter is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the story of a Middle Eastern teenager whose dictator father is killed, and then she and her family are smuggled out of their home country and to the safety of the American suburbs. This is your classic fish-out-of-water tale; Laila, her six-year-old brother Bastien, and their mother Yasmin must assimilate themselves into American life, all while keeping an eye on the civil war that is happening back at home (or, as Laila likes to say, they are “half Here and half There”). Laila finds herself dealing with her first crush, her first friends, and her first tastes of independence and visibility. Her mother, meanwhile, is manipulating and finagling her way back into the palace in which the family once lived, controlling political refugees and a CIA agent to get the job done. The choices that Laila and her family make throughout the story lead to a conclusion that will change the course of their home country’s history forever.

My thoughts:
Full disclosure: I judge books by their covers, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I generally avoid political stories whenever possible, simply because our world is already so oversaturated with politics that I personally don’t feel the need to delve any further into matters out of my control. Talking about, reading about, arguing about politics gives me a headache! So when I laid eyes on the cover of this book, I found myself immediately intrigued with the image but concerned about the title, so I read a quick summary of the plot. Did I really want to read a book about a dictator’s kid?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did.

Laila, to be frank, is sharp as a tack. Her biting commentary about American life — she refers to a drive-through line of cars as a funeral procession, for example — is both shocking and on-the-money. When she walks into an American high school and meets her interpreter, the first adjective that comes to Laila’s mind is whore because Emmy is not completely covered up as she would have to be in Laila’s home country. Of course, Laila also realizes that not only is this disparaging of Emmy’s appearance the direct result of growing up under such strict religious and cultural rules, but also that it’s inappropriate to say such things because Emmy’s look is normal in the United States. Laila is now the “strange” one, not the other way around.

The story itself? I thought that, in a politically ever-changing climate, the story would be much quicker-paced from page one, but it got off to a slow start for me. I refused to give up on it, though, and I’m happy that I didn’t. Once Laila and her family were in the D.C. suburbs, the plot quickly picked up speed and I couldn’t put it down. Laila was dealing with different people and situations from both Here and There, and she found herself caught up in a web of deceit that there was simply no way out of. She also experienced her first crush on an American boy named Ian; with him she learned a little bit about driving a car and about kissing. I found myself wishing that Ian would drop the requests to interview Laila for their school paper, as I knew it meant their story wouldn’t end well (because she said over and over again that she didn’t want to talk about life back There). Amir is a political refugee, another boy forced into her life when Yasmin asks Laila to get to know him. As it turns out, the school that Amir, his sister Nadeen, and their friends were attending came under attack by Laila’s father’s regime; Amir survived, Nadeen was severely injured, and several of their friends were killed. Laila and Amir build something resembling a friendship based on this information — Laila had no idea that her father was behind the attack — and when Laila discovers some very important information about happenings at home, she passes it to Amir, only to discover that it was a setup by Yasmin to have Laila’s uncle, the new dictator, killed so that she might return home and resume control of the government with Laila’s brother Bastien.

Laila gets the last laugh, but I’ll leave the specifics for you to discover on your own. All I’ll say is this: when I finished reading the book, I realized that I’d been hoping for an epilogue describing Laila’s future, many years after returning home. What becomes of Yasmin? Of Bastien? Of Amir? And, most importantly, does Laila, who calls herself the Invisible Queen, ever gain power for real?

So would I recommend this book?
The Tyrant’s Daughter should be required reading for all Westerners — from pre-teens on up to the elderly — period. It provides us with the perspective of someone at the center of the Middle Eastern conflict and, while the story itself is a work of fiction, it is very much based in fact. Ms. Carleson clearly understands both sides of the conflict and her tale is compelling. This is a must-read!

Visit J.C. Carleson’s website here.