I wanted a lighter side to my "Summer Of Spies" reading so I picked up "Desert Dark", knowing from the publisher's summary that it was a Young Adult adventure book about a sixteen-year-old heroine attending a school for spies.
It was the light, fast, slightly simplistic read I'd expected it to be. It started at a run with an attempt on our heroine's life, did a "Three months earlier.." flip followed by an up close and personal murder. Then it slowed down so we could focus on Nadia's experience in attending spy school.
The first indication that this might not be the book for me was how I stumbled over Nadia's reaction to her situation.
Day One of her new school she's subjected to an aggressive, invasive "psych eval" that seems more like an interrogation, is finally told the kind of school she's been tricked into signing up for and has been threatened with indefinite detention without charge under the Patriot Act if she tells anyone about it.
Her reaction? "So I really get to work for CIA Black Ops? How cool is that?"
The dissonance felt pulled me out of the story. What kind of sixteen-year-old thinks it's cool to work for an illegal, lethal, organisation that sets itself outside of control by the democratic process in order to kill America's enemies?
After that, I struggled to muster the required suspension of disbelief.
As the chapters flew by, I began to see the Spy School as a sort of Hogwarts where everyone is in Slytherin and really proud of it.
I should have been caught up in a young Nadia's struggle to thrive in an elite spy school, which has been infiltrated by a double agent who has been told to terminate her in a make-it-look-like-an-accident way because she's perceived as a threat. My attention should have been split between figuring out who the double was (not a simple task as there were so many red herrings the plot stank of fish) and rooting for little miss cute but strong to succeed.
Instead, I kept seeing bright children being abused by a government agency that grooms them to be blindly obedient in the name of patriotism and then trains them to kill on command. They even use a psych profile to find the children whose backgrounds make them need to please and went to feel part of something larger than themselves.
If this book had been written by Tom Clancy and set in a madrassah in Pakistan, he'd have shown it to the home of evil bad guys, exploiting children and misusing faith and courage. Setting the school in America doesn't make what's happening in it any more acceptable.
I stuck with the book to the half-way point because I was curious about who the bad guy was but, in the end, I couldn't set my distaste aside.
If you can come to this with a "Clear and Present Danger" for teenagers mindset then this will probably work for you. It was too Through The Looking Glass for me.