Review – The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson

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When reading the summary of The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson, I hadn’t even considered it could be a YA novel. Written by a former CIA agent, the book follows an unnamed Middle-Eastern despot’s family after his assassination. His wife, daughter, and son flee to the United States with the help of a shady CIA officer, where they struggle to adapt to life as non-royals while watching their home country self-destruct on TV.

But this is a YA novel, written from the perspective of the assassinated leader’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Laila. Sheltered for most of her life, she’s blissfully unaware of the atrocities her father committed against his people before his death. To her this man wasn’t a tyrant or dictator, but a beloved family member. Laila’s move to the US brings new adjectives used to describe her home and her father, like brutal and tyrant, and she struggles to synthesize new information and old.

The reader sees the world through the filter of Laila’s experience and upbringing: a school dance shocks not only because of the gyrating, but also because the crowd of bodies brings flashbacks of angry mobs. Afflicted with undiagnosed PTSD, Laila steps into classic YA fiction scenes only to be quickly jolted out of them with reminders of how different her own values are from those of American society.

Ideas from this book developed from author J.C. Carleson’s real life experiences as a CIA officer. She spent time in Baghdad in 2003, and saw elaborate playhouses left behind at one of Saddam Hussein’s compounds after he fled, which included multiple levels, an intercom system, and an elevator. This caused her to wonder the mindset of the children playing in such a wonderland–did they understand the circumstances around the man who built them such toys? As these questions stewed in her mind, years later, she noticed her son’s nonchalant reaction to the noise explosions which became a regular part of their life on a military base. Rather than jump to sounds of war, he would simply turn up the volume of the TV.

The Tyrant’s Daughter manages to come across as not ignorantly US-centric, as a book written by an American about the Middle East for young readers certainly could. Maybe because of Carleson’s experience, there is depth here that questions our American world view as insistently correct. Laila’s American friends seem insecure and boy-obsessed, and Laila charts her best friend’s countless style phases through the photos decorating her wall, a reminder that our freedom to express ourselves through clothing never really makes us as comfortable as we’d like. As shocking and flawed as Laila’s own culture seems to be, ours is certainly far from perfect.

The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson on

If you liked this book, try these non-fiction titles:

Review – The Interrogator: An Education by Glenn L. Carle.


With Claire Danes regularly losing her marbles as a CIA agent on Homeland, and Jessica Chastain doing whatever it takes to get Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, it seemed an appropriate time to read The Interrogator: An Education and glimpse what really happens in CIA interrogations.

Glenn Carle is a career spy for the CIA – he’s traveled the world, telling lies, manipulating agendas, gathering information.  The Interrogator is his memoir of being pulled off a desk job to interrogate a HVT (high value target), code named CAPTUS, possibly affiliated with Al Qaeda/Bin Laden.  Carle begins to realize the man he is meeting with is not the mastermind the CIA wants or needs him to be.  The CIA urges the interrogations to persist, and Carle finds himself in a unique moral dilemma.

Carle seems born to tell this tale – a spy with a penchant towards classic literature, a multilingual Harvard man who is just as comfortable sleeping in the jungle as debating politics and philosophy in the salons of Europe.  A contradiction, he stands as the lone intellectual in what he insinuates to be a meat-headed culture within the CIA.  His love of the classics shines through in his beautiful soliloquies on his situation (and what his situation means for the rest of us) throughout the book.  With an author less concise, these points could have easily strayed towards diatribe or rant.

I was bracing myself for a gore-filled memoir of torture, but this isn’t that book.  The amount of brutality here is limited to that which is suggested to Carle and which he always refuses, saying “We don’t do that.”

What stands out most about this book is what isn’t there – a huge amount of Carle’s account has been redacted by the CIA.  Although CAPTUS is never named in the book, his identity has been deduced as Pacha Wazir.  A Goodreads review lead me to an article called “Unredacting The Interrogator” at Harper’s online which sheds light on Pacha Wazir, as well as the locations featured in the book.

Carle meanders a bit, and the story is made better for it.  He dabbles in the stories of his personal life (his wife has struggled with alcoholism), explains his past and future roles at the CIA, takes time to expound on the inner-workings of the CIA, and analyzes the KUBARK manual and the effectiveness of torture in general.  He ends the book with specific suggestions he believes would improve the way the CIA develops its terrorism intelligence.  The book isn’t all straight information, however.  His writing is haunting, and it is hard to not be reminded of the noir detective fiction of the twenties and thirties as he describes himself as a lone man wandering the streets of a foreign land.

The most poignant scene for me, and the reason I think this book is an important read, is near the end.  Carle has come home from his mission and is at a dinner party.  Knowing he works for the CIA, a woman is asking “Why haven’t they found Bin Laden?  What are you guys doing?  If it was up to me, I’d just grab them all and make them talk.”  Carle’s experience illustrates how complicated a process tracking terrorism truly is, how the CIA is a bureaucracy like all other governmental agencies, how interrogation is a truly intimate process, and how a solution as simple as “making someone talk” by roughing them up is never the solution.

The Interrogator: An Education on Glenn Carle’s website

Further reading:

Harper’s “Unredacting The Interrogator”

Harper’s “The Interrogator: Six Questions for Glenn Carle”