The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson
Ember, 2015, 304 pages
After the death of her politician father in an unnamed Middle East country, Laila, her mother, and her little brother — the heir to her father’s seat — move to the outskirts of Washington, D. C. for protection. As Laila adjusts to her new American life, she discovers her mother is perhaps not as innocent as she originally believed and there is more to the American government’s intent than she’s told. J. C. Carleson tells Laila’s story in The Tyrant’s Daughter.
With Carleson boasting her background in international affairs (specifically, “as an officer in the CIA’s clandestine service”), readers might expect her to bring knowledge, expertise, and detail to destigmatize the Middle East, refugees, Muslims, and people of color. Despite her personal experiences, Carleson seems only to perpetuate stereotypes and the fear many Americans express around these groups. While Carleson, in the notes of the book, points out she does not name a country for Laila’s origins for a variety of reasons, she fails to acknowledge that, in not naming a country (or, alternatively, making one up), she allows readers to assume all Middle Eastern countries are suffering under the rule of a nefarious dictator who, among other things, oppresses women in the name of Islam. This problematic approach only serves to other those from the Middle East, those who are Muslim, those who are refugees, and, to some extent (though less so, in this context), those who are of color.
This is further underlined when Carleson, or Laila, as the narrator, describes a moment in which she thinks of her female classmates as “whores” because of the typical American clothing they wear. While this might serve to illustrate Laila’s upbringing, it also once again stigmatizes Muslims and the Middle East in a way that is unnecessary. As a whole, Laila is neither a likable nor interesting character. Manipulative and selfish, she has few inherent traits that are about her. Anything that makes her interesting comes from external forces — her status as a de facto princess, for example. Laila consistently rejects everything around her and understandably so, having been plucked from her home and dropped in a foreign world in which the inhabitants believe the worst of her father. But as her defining character trait, this makes Laila difficult to cheer for or care about. What matters most, perhaps, is that Carleson hasn’t motivated Laila to any kind of concrete character development by the end. Instead, Laila remains as she has throughout the novel, her story only improved by circumstances.
Plot-wise, The Tyrant’s Daughter moves slowly and is enveloped in politics that influence Laila’s circumstances at a level well above her. She is unable to do much or be of significant agency, aside from a relationship that may or may not have romantic leanings with a young man who has come from her home country and may have a stake in the rebellion which killed her father. But Laila and her family are not, it would seem, in any kind of witness protection program despite the dangers their identities pose. As a former CIA officer, Carleson should know here, so she’s owed the benefit of the doubt, but it’s strange to not acknowledge the option, especially when it’s so prevalent in similar fictional stories.
One other small thing — the narrative is told primarily in the present tense aside from a few flashbacks. While this does help to differentiate between the flashbacks and the main events, the present tense is more distracting than anything and this differentiation might be better marked with another font style or a simple scene header describing the date or even simply before. In fiction, present tense often is useful when keeping readers in suspense as to whether the narrator will survive the story or when trying to obscure other potential events, but here, the present tense seems to be strictly a stylistic choice that has no real purpose.
A final aside — Carleson’s representation of librarians struck me as disappointing. After inquiring about information regarding her father, Laila is “assisted” by a librarian. In this instance, “assistance” means recalling an article about him in a magazine the librarian happened to have on her desk and handing the magazine to Laila with little other help. The librarian does not conduct any sort of reference interview (to ask questions such as is Laila, who the librarian doesn’t know is related to the man, interested in his personal life? political life? qualifications? downfall?) nor does she offer more substantial or official materials. I’m not convinced this woman went to library school.
The Tyrant’s Daughter isn’t what it could be. It’s misleading in its portrayal of Muslims and Middle Eastern refugees which may be forgivable to the extent that fiction is interesting because it’s about interesting people — the outliers — but it ultimately does damage to people who have and continue to suffer from a lack of education in those who are outside their groups. Carleson’s narrative structure and writing style are, simply, mediocre and it’s difficult to side with Laila or even find her interesting when the bulk of what does make her interesting has nothing to do with her character or personality. This is one novel that is perhaps best left to itself.
I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #10, “Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location,” and I leave it behind with one-and-a-half hearts.
❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤