Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb
My reading list has been heavy on non-fiction lately, so I was in the mood for a fun, action-packed mystery. I found it in the recently-released middle-grade novel Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb by Kirsten Miller. This is the follow up to last year’s series debut Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, which was nominated for the 2006 Cybil Award (as was my Peril and Peace in a different category. Sadly, neither won; but I see Miller is getting a second chance since the new one has been nominated for 2007).
The narrator, fourteen-year-old Ananka, is a smart, gutsy girl with an unusual pastime: she’s a member of a crime-fighting gang called the Irregulars, a bunch of don’t-fit-in former Girl Scouts dedicated to protecting the Shadow City.
You’ve never heard of the Shadow City? Well, you wouldn’t. Because it’s a series of forgotten tunnels beneath New York City with historical (and criminal) interest—fragments of the Underground Railroad, mausoleum chambers, subterranean river passageways once used by pirates and the mob. Only the Irregulars have mapped all the tunnels and secret entrances.
Anyway, each of the Irregulars has a talent that comes in handy for clandestine crime-fighting. Betty—whose parents are costume designers for the Metropolitan Opera—is a master of disguise. Luz is a mechanic, inventor, and gadget guru. Oona knows how to obtain—or, when necessary, disseminate—information. DeeDee and Iris (the youngest Irregular at 11) are chemists who test each other’s mind-influencing and animal-controlling potions. And Ananka is an historian, walking encyclopedia, and undeclared second-in-command. Their leader is Kiki, a tiny, pale thing who just happens to know martial arts and be the exiled heir to the throne of Pokrovia.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Pokrovia either. Until the true princess can overthrow the evil regime that murdered her family and took over her country, you really don’t want to be there; and if you do somehow find yourself there, a working knowledge of Russian will suffice for communication purposes.
And that’s one of Kirsten Miller’s successes. The outrageous elements of The Empress’s Tomb (giant squirrels on the attack, a haunted mansion, rat-repelling perfume, and schoolgirls disarming trained assassins, all leading to a theatrical showdown at a museum fund-raising gala) are woven so skillfully into the world we know that they are believable. You might not buy that a Manhattan socialite would breed, and then leave her house to, a family of six-toed cats, for example…but if you were told that the original Ma and Pa Mutant Kitty were a gift from Ernest Hemingway, well, you might consider it a tad more possible. The Irregulars’ adventures happen in “a world which can be recognized and accepted,” to use Madeleine L’Engle’s terms, and “as long as what the protagonist does is true, this world can be unlimited.” In other words, if you can imagine these characters living in the apartment across the hall from yours, you can accept their exploits as plausible—though you might hesitate to invite all 7 of these feisty females for dinner (and if you do, I warn you not to serve them baby cobras in chili sauce).
I bring Madeleine L’Engle into this because I recently read her comments on writing for children (see my post about it here). I decided to put The Empress’s Tomb to The Madeleine’s Test. How does it stack up?
- L’Engle says a good children’s book is “first and foremost a good book.” Check. This page-turning adventure has a clear storyline with interesting characters, snappy dialogue, and fun inventions.
- It will be “a book with a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify.” Check and check. Most of the main characters are 14, and, despite their unusual extracurricular activities, have all the normal growing pains of school, parents, and friends.
- Finally, it will be “a book which says yes to life.” Again, check. The protagonists are true heroines who live in a broken world but are learning to overcome evil with good.
So my conclusion is that though Madeleine may have preferred a greater dose of philosophy, she would have bonded with the book-devouring Ananka and got a hearty chuckle out of the chemistry experiments!
Thankfully, you’ll find no goddess-within/girl-power propaganda or sweet ‘n preachy moral messages in these pages. What you will find are good old-fashioned values like the affirming power of loyalty, the unpleasant consequences of gossip, and the grace of asking for (and offering) forgiveness. Yes, the characters can be flippant and there are a few crude references—they are teenagers, after all! But they are good kids, who, on occasion, find their crime-fighting missions in conflict with homework and curfew. I mean, it’s one thing to be fearless in the face of murderous smugglers, but who wouldn’t tremble at Mom finding out you skipped school to save the world?
Hang out with Ananka and her friends at the interactive website www.kikistrike.com.