I love the color scheme—and I especially love that the color scheme isn't confined to the dust jacket: take it off, and the boards and endpapers are that same hot pink, and the title on the spine is that same bright yellow. Awesome.
And the actual photo is super: it screams '80s to me (which is when the book is set); it incorporates music and dance, which are both hugely important to our heroine; and it looks suitably New York-y. (At least to my untrained, rural Mainer eye. And, yes, I doubt that she would REALLY be wearing a tutu while waiting for the train, but it makes for a striking image.)
ALSO I LOVE THE TITLE BECAUSE I AM A DORK.
Anyway, ON TO THE ACTUAL BOOK.
Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy begins in Moscow, in November of 1982. Seventeen-year-old Marina is a student at the Bolshoi Ballet's advanced repertory academy, and she's a gifted dancer, but to a degree, she'll always live in her mother's shadow. And really, that isn't an issue. Svetlana Dukovskaya is a world-renowned ballerina, a treasure of the state. Her status, her fame, is the reason that Marina has grown up a child of privilege in a country where people are all supposedly equal but everyone knows that that's a lie.
Then, one day, Sveta disappears.
Marina and her father are informed that she's had a nervous breakdown, and that she's been institutionalized. But that isn't the truth, and they both know that it won't be long before the government comes for them, too.
So they escape to America, leaving Sveta behind. Once there, they begin to rebuild their lives: learn a new language, navigate a new culture, find new friends and new vocations. But they don't—they can't—give up hope of saving Sveta, and their past can't stay hidden for long...
• Marina's voice, which is just plain wonderful. Her first language is Russian, and her voice reflects that in the rhythm of her narration, her vocabulary and word placement:
Then she tosses a hat at me. It's one of those movie hats. Like the men wear in black-and-white, when they spend the whole film putting out cigarettes without smoking them and running up and down the hills of San Francisco with pistols in their hands.
Cultural references are appropriately unexplained: "He's as relaxed as the rabbit in the folktales."
The occasional profanity is fabulous and adds to the flavor: "Shut your mouth, you fucking goat, I think."
And, to top it all off, she's funny: "There is no creature as narcissistic as a teenage ballerina."
• The details about life in the Soviet Union's twilight years. Example: when Big Events Go Down, the news is pre-empted by recording of old ballet performances... and the government just keeps playing them until they've decided on what to say to the people. The language of the official State communications is so hideously over-the-top bureaucratic that it almost reads like Douglas Adams-style satire, but as the author has a background in Russian Studies and spent years there shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, I suspect that it's depressingly accurate. And then, later, the comparisons between Moscow and New York City are also super, as are the descriptions of 1980's era NYC.
• The descriptions of the grotesque side of ballet, the blood and pain behind the artistry and beauty: Anya is sitting in the corner unwinding tape from her toes, gingerly peeling each bloody digit from its neighbor. Her shoes are new and not broken in. There are only actually a few ballet scenes—although ballet is a necessity, not just a want, in Marina's life, it isn't the true focus of the book—but even with the blood, they're gorgeous.
• The romance. It's so nicely understated and subtle. The emotions are palpable—you can feel the attraction between Marina and Ben—but there is no angsting or moaning or does-he-like-me-ing. Neither of them says a word about it until close to the end of the book, and that was a hugely refreshing arc.
• Marina's precognitive visions. They feel more like a plot device than a Real Thing. The visions themselves are nicely vision-y, in that they're scary and confusing and atmospheric, but... as a part of the larger whole, they didn't work.
• Considering the slow pace of the rest of the story, the end felt rushed and unsatisfying.
Is it realistic? Who knows? It certainly strikes me as more realistic than, you know, Alias, but what I know about actual spy stuff would fit into a waaaaaay shorter post than this is turning out to be.
It's a book that has more in common with Le Carre than the Gallagher Girls: the spy stuff is mostly quiet, there aren't car chases and explosions and gadgets and no one gets yanked into a black van, blindfolded, and then interrogated in a scary, leaky pipe-filled warehouse. It's more fish-out-of-water story than action thriller, more family drama than romance, more historical fiction than paranormal adventure. I really, really liked it, but I have no doubt that some readers will slap the dreaded "BOOOOORING" label on it.
Anyway, long, long, looooong story short, the strengths WAAAAAAY outweigh the weaknesses. Looking forward to whatever Kiem writes next.
Book source: Finished copy from the publisher.