When The Tyrant's Daughter was offered to me for review, I was not aware that it was from Random House's Children's Books division, aka a Young Adult novel. If I have known this, I probably wouldn't have accepted it as I rarely review YA books. I glad I did read it because, YA or not, it may be a contender for best fiction in 2014.
Laila is a fifteen year old girl and the daughter of a controversial ruler of a foreign country. Her father is killed in a coup by her more traditional and military-minded uncle leaving Laila, her mother, and her six year old brother, who she describes in the first sentence of the book as "The king of nowhere" in peril. Having escaped with her family and now living in America, she not only has to adjust to a very different lifestyle but is confused by her mother's seemingly indifference to their decline from opulence and importance to rather sparse surroundings as exiles. She is suspicious of the gatherings of expatriates, who her mother would have not associated with in the past, and particularly of a lone American man who she suspects is with the CIA. She is also discovering through her new friends and the much more open media, that her father may have not been who she thought he was.
In telling Laila's story, and in immersing the reader into the thoughts of this smart but sometimes innocent girl, J. C. Carleson makes some wise moves. While there is enough information to clearly place Laila's country in the Mid-East and presumably a Muslim nation, the author never makes it specific. This allows the reader to be less judgmental and accept Laila as she is; a young girl caught in a myriad of cultural and political conflicts. Yet the events that take place in the novel seem all too real to anyone with even a slight knowledge of world events. Carleson has managed to latch on to just the right amount of empathy without the baggage that often accompanies this type of cross-cultural tale. Laila is just a young teenager trying to grow up, but also a victim in a nasty power game and maybe even a unwilling player of the same repressive regime. Her conflicts and dilemmas seem real especially since she essentially comes across as a typical teenager despite how others see her. She is also smart and appropriately cynical, especially when she asks herself things like, "Why am I the only one seems to feel luck like a sunburn?" How she survives her plight is what makes this story mesmerizing. I won't give away anything about the end except to say that it is as emotionally perfect and powerful as endings can be.
While The Tyrant's Daughter is classified as YA, it should be noted that the author does not water down anything. While respecting her audience, she does present some events that can be disturbing to the very young. For the teenage audience that I feel this book is aimed at, it is exactly the right amount of reality that they would respect. But I do not see this as purely a YA novel. I think adults will love and admire it too. Beside, in a YA world where fantasy and science fiction dominates the charts, it is nice to see a quality work that deals with the real world.