I was intrigued to see this book offered by Scholastic in the teen Reading Club Catalog as it sounded both action packed and cultural. The jacket cover summary was vague in describing the characters as being from an “unnamed Middle Eastern country,” but with the slightly veiled girl on front, I figured they probably are Muslim, and I should at the very least how they/we are being portrayed. The book is 295 pages long and that includes the story, the Author’s Note, and a Truth in Fiction section. The author is a former undercover CIA officer and the intense action, intertwined with cultural understandings, leave the reader second guessing and on the edge until the end. The AR level is 5.1, but with the profanity, sexual situations, and violence I would recommend the book to those in high school and up (15+).
Fifteen-year-old Laila flees her homeland, when her father, the head of the county, is killed. Trying to fit in, in Washington, D.C. is not easy for a girl raised like a princess. She has to navigate not only the social norms and high school drama that most kids her age do, but she also has to examine what type of ruler her father was and what price her privilege came at. There are a lot of plot twists, and her mother’s efforts to broker deals with rebel fractions and CIA operatives, keep the plot moving forward. The interpersonal relationships in the background give the characters some depth and memorable traits by contrasting the intensity of a country on edge with the daily dramas of daily life. Surprisingly with so much going on, I thought the book was well written, my only major critique being, I wish i knew more about Laila, the main character telling the story.
WHY I LIKE IT:
It’s a fun story, simple as that. The plausible political plot, the young adult characters with their own heightened sense of self worth, is well crafted by-in-large and the book was engaging. I read it quickly because I wanted to see how it unraveled and it kept my interest. Will I remember it a month from now? Probably not, but often books like this as YA or adult fiction are delicious empty calories and nothing more-or-less than that.
The “royal” family is “Muslim.” Yes, the quotes are intentional, because they don’t identify as Muslim, yet those in America identify them as such. A teacher asks her if she is ok with dissecting a fetal pig and she seems confused as to why that would be a problem. A boyfriend is nervous to make a move, and again she seems taken aback that there would be a religious reason not to, as she sees it as a cultural one only. Even at the end when she is discussing going back to her country her mother remarks that she hates wearing a veil and Leila says she never really minded it. Laila’s mom drinks alcohol and always has, as many heads-of-states of Muslim countries are assumed to do. There is violence, some crude language, and some relationship situations. Again I would not recommend it for younger teens.
One aspect that is worth noting is how the “bad guy,” Laila’s uncle, is painted as being “religious.” I would hope that readers would realize that he is an extremist, an exception to the mainstream followers of Islam. But I don’t know if they would. He is harshly critical of how Laila and her mom dress calling them “whores,” he uses religion as a means of power to oppress and condemn others and is just generally awful. I think the author by largely leaving religion and the name of the country out of the book, isn’t making a judgement on the faith or region, as much as providing plausible pieces to craft an interesting story. That is just my opinion though, and it could probably be changed.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t teach this book, or use it for Book Club, but the supplemental information in the back of the book is definitely interesting, and I think among friends, good discussions about the story’s origins would be fruitful, speculative and engaging.
In a high school setting you could definitely connect it to a Social Studies unit or the Arab Spring.