“Orphan Monster Spy”
Written by Matt Killeen
Review written by Diana Iozzia, at Bookworm Banter, @bookwormbanter
“Orphan Monster Spy” is my favorite read of 2018 so far. This book is engrossing, adventurous, and so vivid I can imagine every second of it as a film in front of my eyes. I do not often visualize books as I read in depth the way that I did while reading this book.
For a debut novel from the author, Matt Killeen, I was deeply impressed. The book hits me in all of the best emotion, intrigue, suspicion, fear, adventure, action, breath-stopping, and it can be a bit violent. All of this is completely justified in the pages that unfold. This book reminds me of many different novels and books. I feel reminiscent of “The Book Thief”, “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo”, “Schindler’s List”, “Never Let Me Go”, “The Golden Compass”, and “Cabaret”. For some reason, I pictured the relationship between Lyra and Lord Asriel and pictured the characters in my mind being played by both actors. The best way I feel to relate this book would be “The Book Thief” at a boarding school with a kickass young girl. The note from the executive editor at Viking Books had actually compared the book to “Inglorious Bastards” for teens, and I can definitely see the similarities, but I hadn’t drawn the conclusions to that myself, nor the ‘“Mean Girls” for Nazis’ from the note as well.
We follow Sarah and her companion, the Captain. They rescue each other on a ferry in Nazi Germany. Sarah is young, but fierce and independent at fifteen. Not often do you read characters who are supposed to be strong, intelligent, and savvy at a young age without them seeming over the top, but I do not feel that way about Sarah. She hits all of the emotional sides that a fifteen-year-old would, but she’s also smart enough to survive an adventurous book as this. Sarah becomes a spy at the Rothenstadt Academy, a boarding school that teaches and trains the sons and daughters of the elite National Socialist Party members. Sarah pretends to be Ursula Haller, as the Captain pretends to be her uncle. As Ursula, she is instructed to spy on and find intel on a young classmate of hers whose father is possibly creating a bomb. I personally love books that take place at certain, slightly unnerving locations, like colleges, private schools, and boarding schools. The narration and the plot lines at the boarding school hit the nail on the head and definitely left me fulfilled with what I was hoping for.
We have a saga, an epic of events that unfold through this book. As Sarah survives the cut-throat, ruthless boarding school, she proves herself to be worthy of the terrible, controlling, and violent classmates. She also befriends a girl everyone calls Mouse, because she’s afraid, but secretly Mouse is spying for her parents. Then, at Christmas time, we find Sarah spying on her classmate’s family and father, and we continue the intrigue. Without giving away any spoilers, the last third of the book, in which Sarah is away for Christmas is incredibly gripping and fascinating.
I’d like to go over some of aspects I enjoyed most about this novel. This book is intriguing. We read through Sarah’s perspective which is riddled with strange narrative devices. We hear her mother’s imaginary voice, we read Sarah’s terrible nightmares from the events leading to and the night of Kristallnacht. In addition, we also have letters, journals, all of the chapter title pages look like old fashioned newspapers or war documents. However, sometimes, her narration can be a bit much. Like an ordinary teen, she repeats certain words or phrases to herself, which can be a bit repetitive, but it didn’t detract from the novel. To continue, I liked the dynamic between Sarah and the Captain. They’re cute and funny and he can be a wonderful father figure to her as he protects her. I appreciated how this was written, although the amount of times she refers to herself as a “dumb slut” can make me gnaw my teeth a little.
As I mentioned earlier, Sarah is extremely clever and intelligent for her young age. We see her navigate many encounters with National Socialists who could easily kill her or arrest her for treason. She can tell from hundreds of feet away from danger how she will make her next move. We have an incredible race sequence where to prove her trust and loyalty to this clique she joins, she must compete in a race through the woods. It’s thrilling and fascinating, and it’s so beautifully visualized. I can just see every breath she takes as she moves, every branch that she runs past. This would be an incredible film. Sarah can pick locks and find hidden objects, even better than James Bond could. This book can be so intriguing for young readers, perhaps we can have a renaissance of young readers interested in espionage. I like that this book was published by a children’s book company, for young adults, but this book does not feel it’s only for young adults. Lately, I’ve fallen out with young adult books, because they often have too many troubles with relationships or romance or things that I just don’t care to read about anymore at 22. This book could be incredible for all ages.
There’s a fascinating section, in chapter twenty-six that used an amazing level of juxtaposition. Sarah and Elsa, who Sarah is spying on, are riding in the car taking them to Elsa’s home for Christmas time. We have Sarah notice many uncomfortable things, juxtaposed by wonderful luxuries. This is reminiscent of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”. Think, Lucy meeting Mr. Tumnus, Edmund being spoiled by the White Witch. Sarah smells the wonderful car, how clean, how cozy with all of the nice warm blankets, but the driver is wearing an SS uniform. Elsa has wonderful sour, delicious sweets that she shares with Sarah. Then, we notice a machine gun sitting on the passenger’s seat. Beautiful books sitting in the back of the car, with wonderful adventure stories. Then, Sarah notices a book that was about warning children of all of the dangers of Jews. This was one of the most memorable scenes, and I think it really stuck with me.
I have a bit of a spoiler section I’d like to include, but I won’t give too many details. I have to mention that in many young adult storylines, there can be plots including sexual assault or harassment. There was a certain section of the plot including this. All too frequently in books lately, I feel very uncomfortable and disheartened when a writer decides to include this in female-driven young adult books, because it feels a cheap way to have a plot be driven, but I’m glad it resolved itself the way it did. Another aspect I need to mention here, I do often also notice that young girls in young adult fiction novels are a little sexualized. This can make me completely distant and start disliking a book, but this only popped up after the racing chapter where Sarah’s “armpits and nipples were rubbed raw”. Not necessary for the narrative at all, but I’m still glad there wasn’t more of this.
Also, I swear this is my last spoiler, but I find in books relating to children and violence, that these books in the action / adventure genres do not have the children feeling sad or disheartened about the negative choice they have to make. For example, when I read the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, the characters, who were all children (until Peter and Susan grew older), were involved in battles and sadly had to kill. I never felt they regretted or felt sad afterwards about their first kill. This happens all too often in material digested by children and teenagers. In other examples, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Twilight”, “Harry Potter”, quite a few Disney movies, and more. We have a bit of a near death / near kill experience in “Orphan Monster Spy” and I really appreciated Sarah’s response to this.
I think this book would make for a fantastic film as I mentioned earlier. However, I think the best thing in the world would be to have a sequel. I’m so curious to read on to see Sarah’s next move and where she will go after this. We see her make her decision, who she would like to protect.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of “Orphan Monster Spy” to participate in Viking Books’ and Penguin Random House’s book blogger tour! Thank you very much for inviting me to participate. Please consider following me on Instagram, @bookwormbanter for photographs of books and my beloved doggy, Luna! Thanks for reading!