Pawns, Players, Puppeteers

The Tyrant's Daughter - J.C. Carleson
Years are lifetimes in my world.

I read this book in a day, with one pit stop to the bathroom. I think I set this aside for 5 minutes when I reached the halfway mark when I noticed I was reading it WAY too fast. To say I was surprised given the weight and my unfamiliarity with the subject matter, is pretty much low-balling it. 

I'm also sure getting selected to receive an ARC of this from NetGalley is a glitch in the matrix seeing as I'm probably the least world politics conscious person I know. I tuned in to CNN for an entire day one time (it was the only English speaking channel on the crappy hotel's TV) and I remember wanting to stay in bed, feeling small and futile in the enormity of an uncaring, random world. Living the day-to-day is hard enough, poking your head around the bigger picture is just overwhelming. That's pretty much the best argument in choosing fantasy, fluff and fiction. Reality, the bigger reality, is a pervasive threat waiting overwhelm and debunk everything that you do soon as you acknowledge its presence. A struggle for your struggle to struggle against.

The Tyrant's Daughter can make you feel all and none of that.


Laila has just come to America with her brother Bastien, and her mother, from an unnamed Middle Eastern country where her father was assassinated in a coup organized by his brother. Her father was a king. Or so she was told. Which makes her brother a six-year old King of Nowhere and her a fifteen-year old Invisible Queen, exiled in the Land of the Free.

As she strives to fit in her school with new found friends operating in a set of rules different from the ones she grew up in, she starts to learn about her past through the eyes of the rest of the world. She discovers the truth about her family while she grows conflicted about her new "home", it's strange culture and belief system that sends her to question her own 


College loans and Happy Meals. Disneyland. Free refills. Boys like Ian, with dazzling eyes and kind, good hearts. Librarians with arms full of books for the taking, and shiny plastic jewels. Picnics in the park. Lucky Charms.

So much happy artifice. Such fanciful illusions.

She struggles to reconcile this neon-bright promise of a future with coming to terms with the past she can't seem to let go. Or won't let HER go as she watches a variety of strange, sinister men come and go in their quaint and cramped Washington apartment. A man in a suit and tie who escorted them out of their palace and into America, surly men from their country and a surlier scarred boy, Amir, who watches her in school. In the middle of it all is her mother, with her secrets, her clandestine phone calls back home, her empty whiskey bottles and her intentions. Of which Laila has just recently learned, along with the truth about their family, she isn't privy to. 

This is the story of how she became an Invisible Queen from being an Invisible Queen.


It's always the complex, multi-layered and textured stories that are the hardest to review. Like those matryoshka dolls where it's never really just one doll, this really wasn't just one story and Carleson did an excellent job tying them into a neat and layered little package. I want to label it a deeply feminist story (and to an extent it really is) but I think it's a humanist examination of the complexity of world politics first and foremost. It places the pawns, the players and the puppeteers of these global games in situations outside war rooms and international conferences. Carleson mashes that petri dish with the petri dish of the mundane and the day-to-day, portraying a dictator as a father and a husband without whitewashing his faults was pretty impressive but the depiction of his wife as a mother, his teenage daughter as a teenager reconciling freedom, hormones and her own personal values and so on was a perspective that resonates without being propaganda preachy.

Talking about my world, seeing it distorted, fun-house-mirror reflection in the eyes of these American acquaintances, is okay. Their perspective is not mine, and my reality is not theirs. But somewhere our differences is a shared space where we are friends.

The beautiful and heartfelt honesty reflected in Laila's character couldn't have been delivered any more poignantly. She was such a harrowing and thought-provoking narrator, avoiding the usual pitfalls of flashy manipulative tearjerker lines and scenes, expressing herself instead in ways that came across balanced and fair that you can't help but respect and root for her. She was very charismatic as a heroine, in her relationship with her mother and Bastien and in her understanding and respect of human nature while keeping at her own beliefs and principles.

Americans never seem to be at peace with their surroundings - they're always heating or cooling or just constantly changing everything to meet their whims. Watching their industriousness exhausts me, and sometimes I want to shout out, to tell them to just be. But I know I have no right to criticize. Everyone needs to feel some degree of control over their universe.

Yeah, I may have highlighted half the book in all of Carleson's redolent observations put into matter-of-fact yet haunting prose. She writes with confidence without that aggressive push, presenting details with documentary-like impartiality. The events, the personalities, the places all seem familiar but never distracts from the plot at hand.

I was wary for a while that with the introduction of two male protagonists in the story, it was trying to conform to please certain YA readers' palates. But it doesn't. There will be no picking of Team Amir or Team Ian in this one, this is not that kind of book. Both are key instruments to her process of self-discovery and character growth in the midst of isolation in the midst of freedom. And it's an amazing relief to see how it is done properly.

I love how this was a fully-formed story, with no lapses in the rhythm and tension that it set. Some parts may have employed some 007 bells and whistles which was a bit of a contrast to the realistic path this has set itself on but I found myself more entertained than bothered, how the suspense was built and satisfied in its resolution. The way this ended was a brilliant end note on what I felt this book was trying to achieve, the message it was trying to cut across. I may have raised a wary eyebrow at the commentary after the author's note because I'm not too keen on reading something that tells guides me HOW to read a book but I can't deny how much Benazir Bhutto's story disarmed me and served a purpose in the context of Laila's own. How a story is not just a story and how good is not simply good just as bad is never simply bad. It makes you think how the world as it is now is a product of good intentions, noble aspirations and dreams of men and women, great and small, good and bad that went well or had gone awry along the way. How the reality we exist in can never be captured by video, encapsulated in political science books or memoirs in all its complex textures, twists and turns. 

We all serve within the rules of that reality, which in turn serves it's contradictory masters of circumstance, purpose and chance and each person's story is either each person's struggle to break free and from that or waltz with it. It may not hold the answers on the how but there's something to be said about knowing and journeys half-made.

I am my mother's daughter. I am my father's daughter. And I have learned from their mistakes. I am the Invisible Queen.

Now excuse me as I search and add the recommended books listed as companion reading for this one.


ARC provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers (THANK YOU!) thru Netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. Quotes may not appear in the final edition.