So starts Laila's story. She's recently been relocated to an apartment with her mother and brother in Washington D.C. suburbia. Her six-year-old brother is the would-be heir to power of the country they fled shortly after Laila's father was killed, and his brother assumed power by force. Now, instead of living ensconced in a Middle Eastern palace, Laila is struggling to understand her new life and new culture as she attends her new American school. As if that's not hard enough, her eyes are being opened to the many horrors that occurred under her father's rule, and trying to reconcile those with the loving father she knew is no easy task. Laila is amazed at the freedom her new life affords her; a life without veils, a culture where casual kissing isn't forbidden. At the same, though, she feels the pull of her home country, hates the treachery of her despotic uncle, and can't shake the feeling that something has to be done to discover and rectify the secrets that are buried deep in her homeland.
The Tyrant's Daughter is a story headed in two different directions, mostly because Laila herself is headed in two different directions. There's the Laila who is striving to make friends, understand a culture that mystifies her and fit in with people whose biggest problem is a nasty break-up. This Laila is learning to cut loose at the school dance and what it feels like to fall in love with a guy that's not chosen for her. The other Laila is still deeply embroiled in the struggles of her home country. A CIA agent keeps lurking around her new home, and some expatriates from her country that her family never would have associated with in her old life are visiting frequently. She knows her devious mother is up to something, and a lot hinges on what Laila, her family's "Invisible Queen," can find out and act upon.
I loved the premise of this story but felt that the execution left a lot to be desired. It's not difficult to imagine this scenario happening. Laila's country is an amalgamation of several Middle Eastern nations and it's not much of leap to imagine the high-stakes politicking Laila's family becomes embroiled in. Laila's discovery of the atrocities happening in her country and her discovery of the power her family wields even at a distance are the high points of this story.
My country makes shameful lists: Worst countries for women. Worst countries for human rights. Worst countries for press freedom. It's never at the top, but it's often close -- it's the runner-up in a devil's beauty pageant.
However, Laila's interactions with her new American culture and struggle to fit in seemed to me to be woefully inauthentic. I never quite bought Laila's romance with Ian of the leonine eyes, and her bubbly friend Emmy seemed to be a caricature of a typical happy mostly problem-free American teenager created mostly to stand in stark relief against Laila's overburdened worldliness. When Laila in her first person narration tosses off observations about her new culture relative to her old one, it's more like hearing Carleson's voice, not Laila's, and that voice occasionally feels just the slightest bit condescending (Like, how could you silly, pampered Americans with your #firstworldproblems possibly understand the magnitude of Laila's struggles?). All in all, the first person narration itself wasn't quite successful. The short chapters and the Carleson's tendency to tell much more than show left me feeling disengaged from Laila for much of the book.
The Tyrant's Daughter might prove to be a good starter book for young adults to gain a better and more meaningful understanding of the Middle East and the struggles it faces through Laila's story. However, if you're a little older and a little more well-read on the issues and cultures of the Middle East, you might find this book to ring a little hollow, as it did for me. Perhaps part of the problem is, yet again, that I'm reading a book that's just a little too Y for my A.
(I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.)