“Filled with political intrigue and emotional tension, Carleson’s riveting novel features a teenage refugee caught in a web of deceit and conspiracy.” —PW, starred review
When her father is killed in a coup, Laila and her mother and brother leave their war-torn homeland for a fresh start in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
At her new high school, Laila makes mistakes, makes friends, and even meets a boy who catches her eye. But this new life brings unsettling facts to light. The American newspapers call her father a brutal dictator and suggest that her family’s privilege came at the expense of innocent lives. Meanwhile, her mother would like nothing more than to avenge his death, and she’ll go to great lengths to regain their position of power.
As an international crisis takes shape around her, Laila is pulled in one direction, then another, but there’s no time to sort out her feelings. She has to pick a side now, and her decision will affect not just her own life, but countless others. . . .
Inspired by the author's experience as a CIA officer in Iraq and Syria, this book is as timely as it is relevant.
Praise for The Tyrant’s Daughter:
“Carleson, a former undercover CIA officer, infuses her story with compelling details and gripping authenticity.” —The Boston Globe
“Every American should read this book. It’s an eye-opener.” —Suzanne Fisher Staples, Newbery Honor–winning author of Shabanu
An Excerpt fromThe Tyrant's Daughter
My brother is the King of Nowhere.
This fact doesn't matter to anyone except my family--a rapidly shrinking circle of people who Used to Be. And, even for us, there are surprisingly few perks. Now we sit in our airless apartment, curtains closed against the outside world, pretending.
My mother pretends that nothing has changed.
She is good at this charade. Her every gesture oozes money and power now long gone. They wouldn't let her take her closets full of designer clothes when we left our country, but she still spends hours on her appearance--pretending that photographers might still want to take pictures of her every outing, even dressed as she is now in J. C. Penney sale-rack clothes and drugstore lipstick. Pretending her old life didn't die along with my father.
My brother is six.
I try to remember six. What it might feel like at that age to be told that you are the exiled ruler. That you deserve to be king. That someday soon you will be--once the right people die, that is.
My younger brother's almost-title and nonexistent kingdom do not make me anything at all. And yet I'm right here beside him, thousands of miles from everything I once knew. Mine is a nameless, purposeless banishment. Guilt by relation.
My fifteenth birthday came and went yesterday. No one remembered. It's understandable, I suppose, considering what we've all been through in the last few weeks. There are bigger things to remember, and we all certainly have far bigger things to forget.
Perhaps I'll start calling myself the Invisible Queen. Sometimes just having a title helps.
My brother the king does not like that he has to share a bedroom with me.
I don't like it either. So I pretend he's not there. I ignore his king-sized tantrums and the dirty royal socks that he leaves on my bedspread. I pretend not to hear him when he tells me what to do.
"Mom!" Bastien shouts. "Laila isn't obeying me. Tell her she has to obey. I'm the king!" He pouts in a very regal way.
It doesn't help that Mother encourages him. She thinks it's cute. "Laila. Can't you at least show him respect? Someday you will have to, you know." She pinches his cheeks. "My little prince."
"King!" he insists, getting even more angry. "I'm not a prince. I'm a king!"
I suppose it doesn't occur to him that his promotion from prince came at the cost of our father's life. He's only a child, after all; he can be forgiven for missing the connection. So sometimes I play along. "Yes, Your Majesty." I curtsy, even though back home we never did such things. Ours was not that kind of royalty. Not the kind with ball gowns or high tea or croquet matches played on manicured lawns. It wasn't even real.
But still we pretend.
Bastien whining and turning up the volume on the TV. "Daddy, make them stop. I can't hear my show." He keeps pressing the button, up up up, until the voices of the talking cartoon fish drown out the sound of gunfire outside.
Father ruffles Bastien's hair. Confident to the end, if you weren't close enough to see the frown lines around his eyes and mouth growing deeper every day. If you didn't pay attention to how many hours he spent just pacing, pacing. If you didn't notice, as I didn't at the time, that he hardly seemed to leave the house anymore, or that when he did go out, it was with twice as many bodyguards as before. "It's amazing," he says to us. "The satellite dish still works, through it all. Everything else out there has gone to hell, but just look at that resolution. Programs from the other side of the world--the best technology money can buy."
In hindsight, perhaps he should have been paying closer attention to the guns.
Here, now, Bastien and Mother continue to turn the television volume up too high. Blocking out memories, perhaps? Or more likely just habit. Now it only serves the purpose of blocking out the sound of the neighbor in the apartment next door--a cranky old woman living alone who beats against the wall with a broom, or maybe a cane. Something that makes a faint, rhythmic bang bang bang sound that is no competition for the sound of bullets flying. No one else in our apartment seems to even hear it.
I turn down the volume when they aren't paying attention, and try to smile in apology when I see the old woman outside. It's not their fault, I want to say. But isn't it? What else do they ignore simply because it suits them? What else have we all ignored?
The old woman just glares at me. All she wants is peace and quiet in her shabby apartment, and I can't give it to her. In her eyes, I am useless.
Now we live in not-quite-Washington, D.C. Our home is twenty-five miles away from a capital where we have no status, in a suburb that feels so distant from either past or future that it might as well be on the moon. An exile within an exile.
Nothing is familiar. Nothing is easy. Not even for a King of Nowhere or an Invisible Queen.
At first, the differences between Old Life and New Life were most obvious in the small and the unimportant.
The grocery store, for example. An entire aisle of cereal. Hundreds of boxes. Hundreds of choices. Of course I had eaten cereal before. I'm not a savage. Mother's shopping trips in Europe were always followed a few weeks later by the arrival of wooden crates full of her carefully selected treasures from abroad. Bastien and I would tear at the contents, racing each other for the discovery of the small luxuries Mother had picked out for us, nestled among the bottles of liquor, perfume, and other adult delicacies that didn't interest us in the least. For us there were metal tins of fancy chocolates, giant tubs of peanut butter, comic books, DVDs, and always, always our favorite cereals, which we ate from Grandmother's delicate teacups rather than bowls in order to make each box last one or two more precious mornings.
Cereal was a small, affordable luxury--one we knew well. But it was still a luxury. An effort. A point of pride. Something special, chosen and imported just for us. Father's position meant that rules were broken so we might have things that others in our country could not. Those crates of cereal meant that we deserved what others did not.
Here, the choices that stand before me in the store aisles seem to exist only to mock me. Cereal isn't a luxury, you stupid fool, the boxes laugh at me. You were really impressed by a couple of jars of peanut butter? Two aisles down I count twenty-seven different kinds of that too. And mustard. Dozens of varieties of mustard.
Is it really necessary?
It makes me angry, all of that mustard. Those taunting boxes of cereal, so overvalued in my memory.
Bastien sees things differently. He squealed and whirled and grabbed the first time he saw that aisle of temptation. He lost himself in the choices, filling our shopping cart until Mother told him, smiling, that that was enough cereal for the moment. He ate himself sick that evening, mixing enormous bowlfuls of cocoa nuggets with marshmallow crisps with honey puffs. I pulled my pillow over my head as the exiled king vomited Lucky Charms all through the night.
The king and I start school.
It's not our choice. Mother didn't like it--none of us were ready for it--but something came in the mail that shook her up enough to change her mind. I only managed to read a few phrases before she snatched the letter away. "Condition of legal immigrant status." "Violation of terms." "Deportation."
Mother seethes enough for all of us. She doesn't like being told what to do. Who do they think they are, sending this threatening, impersonal letter in the mail? Treating us like common immigrants!
It's easier to just obey. Besides, after three weeks of staring at each other in our tiny apartment, we all need a break. Our mourning has kept us docile. Lethargic. But our grief-induced stupor is starting to lift, and we're growing restless and more and more irritable with one another every day. Maybe school is a good thing. Even Bastien is unusually compliant with the idea.
I have one condition.
I want an interpreter. Not for language. For life. Someone who can help me understand cereal aisles and lunch lines and other small, baffling things like the posters in the hallways telling students to wear their pajamas to school for spirit day. MTV and the Cartoon Network, blaring on our television whenever Bastien can seize control of the remote, are only marginally more useful than my mother at explaining these things.
The school is quick to assist. They assign me Emmy, a student mentor. President of the international students club, though she's never been anywhere except Canada and on a weeklong beach vacation at a resort in Mexico. I know because she shows me photos the first time we meet.
I'm embarrassed to say that my first thought when I meet Emmy is a single, ugly word.
But it isn't my fault. It isn't my voice. It's the voice of my uncles. All but one are dead now, but they still sometimes speak, cruel and accusing as ever, in my thoughts.
In my country, women wear layers. Our clothing flows and drapes. It hints and implies.
I shouldn't have reacted. I've seen enough television to know how people here dress. That the clothing here shouts. That it confesses secrets that remain better kept elsewhere. I'd seen it for myself in Paris when my mother took me on one of her shopping trips as a birthday treat. She'd boarded the airplane dressed as usual. But each hour, each trip to the first-class restroom, revealed slightly more of her. A scarf removed here. A shawl removed there. By the time we landed, my mother was transformed. Unwrapped.
At the time, I was in awe of the way she'd changed, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. And then, on the way back home, I was relieved to see the layers reappear, piece by piece, returning the glamorous stranger in the seat next to mine back into my mother.
But even my Paris mother had limits cheerfully ignored by Emmy, whose bare shoulders display peeling traces of an old sunburn and whose freckled and scratched legs climb alarmingly high until they meet a short skirt at the very last possible moment. That she can feel so at ease in her flawed skin is astonishing to me.
Emmy must feel me looking at her. Judging her. Because her smile stiffens slightly and she takes a small step back, a wounded expression on her face.
I still have power.
But I know that she isn't a whore, or any of the other, even worse things that women are sometimes called in my country. I know that, here, she is perfectly normal. My new normal.
I am the one who has to change. To transform, like my mother on that airplane ride. I offer Emmy a smile and some small talk to make up for my insult.
She accepts, perking up before my eyes. "Wow, you speak English really well," she says, slowly and too loudly.
"I would hope so. I've been tutored in French and English since I was old enough to walk." It is a princess's voice. I see Emmy's face catch that, too. I have to change faster. "But thank you," I say in a stranger's humble voice. Another apologetic offering.
Forgive me. I'm still learning.
Emmy. So cheerfully American, so wholesome and naïve even in her near nakedness, forgives yet again. I will have to study her carefully. Surely this openness has limits.
I wait for Bastien at his bus stop after school, thinking that if his first day was anything like mine, he'll want me there. I'm grateful for the chance to just sit on a bench in silence for a few minutes, since my mind is numb from sensory overload. Hallways full of people wearing impossibly bright, bright colors have left my eyes feeling scorched. Today was a blurred parade of socks that matched shirts that matched sweaters--indulgent color coordination that you only see on pampered children in my country. Toothy white smiles punctuated the faces of the candy-colored strangers in the hallways, leaving me feeling like a small, dark storm cloud skittering grimly from corner to corner.
Bastien is somehow unaffected.
He leaps off the bus looking remarkably like all of the other six-year-olds who tumble out behind him. He's a king disguised as a commoner, right down to the grass stains on his knees and the cowlick in his hair. The only hint of his foreignness is the leather satchel he carries--the same one he carried on our rushed flight away from home.
He needs a backpack like the other kids, I see. Something made of cheap nylon, with a superhero emblazoned on it. And bright. It has to be a bright color. I make a mental note to help him buy one. There's no reason that any of this should be harder on him than it needs to be.
"Bastien!" I call out as the other kids push past us. He looks happy to see me. That he looks happy for any reason reassures me. "How was the bus?"
He looks up at me with wide eyes. "The driver stopped for a squirrel!" His voice is full of awe.
I cringe. I know exactly why this should matter to him--why he should find such a thing incredible.
"Everything's different here." It's the only thing I can think to say as I put my arm around his shoulders and hustle him toward home. Luckily my response seems to satisfy him, and he doesn't mention it again. Instead, he chatters happily about recess and fire drills. The memory is roused in my mind, though, and it oozes uncomfortably in my thoughts like a lanced blister.
Bastien is thinking, I know, of a scorching hot day not long ago--another memory from our Before. Our driver was racing through the streets faster than usual. Going anywhere as a family required a cumbersome and cheerless parade of at least five cars. A security detail always rode in the first and the last cars--grim-faced men who carried guns and never spoke to me. The cars in the middle varied in their order. They were identical by design--armored cars shipped in from South Africa that reminded me of heavy, metal armadillos. On this day my parents rode in one car, Bastien and I in another, and the third car was a decoy driven by a nervous chauffeur who took no comfort in being the least valuable member of our bulletproof procession. The position of Father's car changed every time so that no one ever knew which car to attack. We were shuffled around like a deck of cards--the moving target that was my parents' car sometimes ahead of us and sometimes behind. The elaborate vehicular waltz was just one more attempt to fool those who wished us harm.