Title: Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy
Author: Elizabeth Kiem. This is her first novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Thriller
Readers: Professor JoLee, copyeditor Lori, lawyer Cait, day care teacher EMarie and retiree Sulyn.
Summary: Marina is born of privilege. Her mother, Sveta, is the Soviet Union’s prima ballerina: an international star handpicked by the regime. But Sveta is afflicted with a mysterious second sight and becomes obsessed with exposing a horrific state secret. Then she disappears.
Fearing for their lives, Marina and her father defect to Brooklyn. Marina struggles to reestablish herself as a dancer at Juilliard. But her enigmatic partner, Sergei, makes concentration almost impossible, as does the fact that Marina shares her mother’s “gift,” and has a vision of her father’s murder at the hands of the Russian crooks and con artists she thought they’d left behind.
Now Marina must navigate the web of intrigue surrounding her mother’s disappearance, her ability, and exactly whom she can—and can’t—trust.
Our Take: Definitely a YA with crossover appeal and a unique story to tell. A couple of our readers wanted more, but the overall verdict is it’s a tight and fun thriller.
Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy has a terrific premise: ballet, the KGB, the Cold War, mobsters, fugitives, international espionage. There are a lot of things to love about this book! However, I wanted more of almost everything. More dancing. More intrigue. More character development. And, if we are going to have it at all, more of the supernatural. This is a slim tome, tallying just 288 pages, and I really it was longer so that we could have more of all that great stuff. I felt like I was reading most of the book through a thin veil. It was as if I could never quite get a complete glimpse of any of the characters or the harrowing obstacles they had to navigate. This is probably exactly how Marina felt in a new country with new customs and a new language. On top of navigating all of that, Marina has no idea who to trust, where to turn, or how her visions of the future will come to pass. Probably best of all, Elizabeth Kiem’s writing made me believe that Marina was not an American girl recast as a Russian, but a real Russian fugitive.
Let me first say that if you pick up Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy because you like books about ballet and dancing, put it back down. The ballet only serves as a convenient set-up. I mean, how else would a Russian defect if she weren’t a ballerina? Yes, the main character, Marina, is Russian–sometimes more than others, in fact, her internal voice sounds very much like a typical American teenager, which I found particularly distracting given her external struggle with English and her confusion with American culture. Also distracting? The heavy-handed plot device of having “visions,” which, by the way, never seemed to materialize. I also had problems with the voices of some of the other characters, including Sergei, the young Russian ballet dancer turned–what?–informant, maybe? He sounded like a walk on character from an episode of Law and Order. Marina was barely a dancer; she was not a traitor, nor was she a spy. Was there even anything to spy on? This book just didn’t come together at all for me.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a YA novel that’s not part of a wildly successful series (basically, Harry Potter). The first half of Daughter, Dancer, Traitor, Spy was a pleasant surprise, immediately gripping me and drawing me in to the high stakes world of privileged artists in Soviet Russia. The plot unfolded nicely as the action moved to Brighton Beach and Marina dealt with competing suitors and the Russian mob, only coming a bit unglued during the (somewhat unsatisfying) resolution of the main story. I wished Kiem had taken a little more time with the mystery near the end, but ultimately enjoyed the novel and found myself hoping that it might be the first in a series–I was fascinated by this taste of the Soviet immigrant/refugee experience in America and would love to read more. Overall, it was a well executed novel and a very quick read.
Though this book is written extremely well, and engages the reader with the perspective of Marina immediately, I felt as if something was missing. I enjoyed reading about Marina’s struggle to adjust to a new style of life and of seeing and feeling what she experienced through her eyes. However, I never really connected to her on a stronger level. I was pulled into the story in the beginning, but as I read, it became harder and harder for me to remain engaged in the book. Nothing seemed to be occurring but her life. After a while, I no longer cared what was going to happen in the end. I didn’t need to know how things turned out. While the book was well written, and the characters felt real to the story line, by only seeing the world through Marina’s mistrusting eyes, I began to not trust the characters either. I lost my connection with Marina as well and after the first section of the book, I no longer was striving to find out what happened to her. I was unable to finish this book, though their seemed to be no single problem that I could pinpoint.
Read Instead: I would, instead, recommend Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. This book has the drama and emotion that was missing in Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. It takes place in Lithuania and follows the story of a single young girl. It kept me gripped, not wanting to put down the book until the story was complete.
What a great book for teens, young adults, and older adults like me! As the title indicates, Dancer Daughter, Traitor, Spy has some of everything that might keep a reader’s interest. Although not mentioned in the title, mysterious friendships and a little romance are important ingredients for telling the story too. Does that mean the book is more apt to be enjoyed by teenage girls rather than boys? No. Most any teen would enjoy the intrigue, mystery and action-packed story with its never ending twists and turns.
Dancer Daughter, Traitor, Spy is a book that keeps the pages turning and leaves the reader wanting more. There are questions left at the end of the story. Are they to be answered by the reader’s imagination? Or do they lead to a follow-up book? My opinion is that this would make an excellent “Book I” in a series for teens.