Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Teenage Spy Guild of the Mediterranean Coast

Ally Carter, Embassy Row #1: All Fall Down

Young Grace insists she witnessed her mother’s murder. Daughter of a Special Forces veteran and granddaughter of America’s esteemed ambassador to Adria, Grace knows something about keeping secrets; but her willful streak won’t let her keep quiet. When she moves into her grandfather’s embassy, she expects a life of diplomatic glad-handing and general boredom. Then, across a crowded palace, she spots the man who murdered her mother.

Grace insists she knows her mother’s murderer with such dedicated assurance, we know that by book’s end, she’ll either be spectacularly vindicated or have her entire universe turned upside down. Ally Carter, a generous author, attempts both. Having written two prior series featuring teenaged spy heroines, Carter turns her seasoned aplomb to true world affairs. Unfortunately, even part-time news followers will quickly spot serious problems with Carter’s universe.

Ancient, dynamic Valancia, capital of Adria, overlooks the Mediterranean shoreline, hosting many glamorous embassies in Renaissance-era manors. Carter’s description combines elements of Monaco, Dubrovnik, and Istanbul with fanciful imaginings of European splendor. This includes, apparently, remarkably modest land values, since embassies, not jet-setting millionaires, control Valancia’s prestigious waterfront properties. Also, nobody apparently pushes mops or waits tables. Carter creates a world of relentless, polished spy movie spectacle, and nothing else.

Into this world, Grace inserts herself, among children of Earth’s most influential embassies. Youth from the local International School flit among social circles with apparent abandon; ambassadors’ children apparently wed and start families, while functionally stateless teenagers weave continual soap-operatic social webs. This suggests a remarkably settled diplomatic corps. Grace’s grandfather says he’s spent twenty-five years in Adria. I don’t buy it; I’ve read In the Garden of Beasts.

Ally Carter
But Grace remains undaunted, both by diplomatic prestige and monied splendor. She vaults walls into neighboring embassies, functionally invading other countries. She pulls James Bond surveillance in crowded Byzantine-era streets. She moves from begowned diplomatic receptions to arguments in rain-soaked streets with ease that makes Kate Beckinsale look flustered. One starts to suspect somebody’s keeping things both feasible and dramatic for her.

Then there’s Grace’s absolute certainty. She knows, undeniably knows, she witnessed the Scarred Man assassinate her mother, the ambassador’s daughter. The complete lack of physical evidence—the absence of the bullet wound, the lack of accelerant from the bomb—does nothing to persuade Grace that this assassination couldn’t possibly have happened. Her dogged persistence, admirable in early chapters, gets wearing. But YA readers know, adult uselessness is a foregone conclusion.

This theme, admittedly, has become my Achilles’ heel recently. Adult uselessness has become so ubiquitous, it’s become the marketing segment’s signature move. Most recent YA novels commence with the understanding that children, unburdened by knowledge or predisposition, see truths adults willingly ignore. Sometimes this works: Katniss Everdeen challenges corrupt demagogues because she has no insider standing, no bills to pay. But sometimes, age and experience know things.

Surrounded by more embassies than any city outside the Hague, Grace nevertheless kicks doors, conducts espionage, and gathers guerilla evidence. Her grandfather attempts to teach her diplomacy; she defies him, in ways subtle and coarse. She clearly believes, and convinces fellow ambassadors’ kids, that world problems get better if diplomats stop acting diplomatically and practice teenagers’ unbridled honesty. Anyone who’s argued politics with college freshmen knows how that works.

Instead, Grace rampages through Valancia, aided by a cadre of fellows too young to drive. Sometimes she’s stymied and learns to behave discreetly; more often, her headstrong ways yield bountiful rewards. Grace resembles the kind of teenager who breaks others’ things because she doesn’t know what stuff costs. She yells, screams, threatens, engages in psychological blackmail, and by such degrees ekes out victory. That, frustratingly, seems to be our moral.

Carter assembles this novel from stereotypes salvaged from John le Carré novels, Pretty Little Liars episodes, and James Bond movies. Everything happens because it’s supposed to. Heroines like Grace deserve a sidekick, so Carter gives her one. Carter gives Grace a chaste but adversarial romance with the Russian ambassador’s son. Carter gives Grace friends willing to risk sedition and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to get in with the in crowd.

In early chapters, Grace had my sympathy. I believed her conspiracy theory, because I’ve read YA, and I accept the genre’s premises. But as she shows profound inability to learn her world’s ways—and Carter shows profound unfamiliarity with America’s foreign service apparatus—my patience wore thin. Okay, the conclusion isn’t a complete rout; Carter saves something for the next novel. But by then, I’d already stopped caring.

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