In a story inspired by both real and fictitious events, fifteen-year-old Laila has just had her whole world turned upside down. She’s been exiled from her country and now lives in a state of asylum in the United States with her mother and younger brother, since her father, the ruler of an unnamed Middle Eastern country, was assassinated by her uncle. Now her new freedoms and friendships have her questioning her whole past and her mother’s involvement with her uncle’s new regime. Was her father a dictator, a tyrant that murdered and starved their people or a King, like he told her and her brother? How does she reconcile that man with the loving father she knew? Is her mother working for her uncle, to further devastate their country, or should Laila continue trusting her to do the right thing? How will all of this affect Bastien, her younger brother, who is set to inherit the mantle of power though he’s only 7 years old? Is there any difference that Laila herself can make in helping her people or protecting her brother from the same fate?
While this unique coming-of-age story is mesmerizing and a fantastic read about exploring your own identity and reconciling your childhood beliefs to new, more mature realizations of the world, it is also one that is very hard to describe without betraying certain facts that are intrinsic to the plot. It is definitely a book that will speak to any reader, as growing up means learning entirely new meanings for the things you thought you knew. Laila transforms from a passive, afraid, and utterly naïve girl into a young woman who knows that she cannot accept the world at face value for underneath it can be seedy and utterly reviling with its destruction and contempt for humanity. With her growing knowledge, she must make a choice whether to do nothing and accept the ugliness or stand up and use her own gifts to stop it. Her new acquaintance with Amir brings a real face to her people, and Laila, though her family betrays her, realizes she can do nothing about their choices, but can stand in the gap to prevent new tyranny and suffering and she can provide responsibility and new direction to their future. Though Laila can be painted with the same pitch as her tyrant father, dictator uncle, and manipulative mother, she can also step out of their shadows and become her own person to do what is good for her people. The sins of the father need not be the sins of his offspring.
This could be one of those great reads for high school classrooms. I really loved how the story is still very moving and Laila can easily connect to the reader, while the actual plot events are partially taken from history but without any identifiable markers. It is more of a “what if” book than historically significant, but should be an eye-opener for any who blindly do not accept those from the Middle East. This should be read for the cultural insight alone, bridging the unknown of a Middle Eastern life and culture (especially those nations who have been involved in wars recently–those we might mistakenly describe as terrorists) and our familiar American one. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a single way this book could be better, except possibly by continuing the story.
Fun fact: the author is a former undercover CIA officer who was involved in international conflicts. She also doesn’t paint the common picture of the CIA, either, and shows that even our agents and government have their own agendas which might conflict with the common good of the nation.