Saturday, November 25, 2006

Review: Kiki Strike

This is the first in a series of reviews I'll be posting of books nominated for The Cybils in the Middle Grade Fiction category. I'm a member of the nominating committee and have thirty five books left (of 63 nominated titles) to read during the next few weeks.

I picked up Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City first, because so many other bloggers have loved it and now I know why. This book rocks! In fact, Kiki Strike is a book you can safely give to any girl ages nine and up. (Boys may enjoy Kiki Strike as well, but it's very much a girl power book, with nary a positive boy character in sight.)

Kiki Strike is written from Ananka Fishbein's point of view and begins when Ananka, at the time only twelve years old, spies an unusual sinkhole from the window of her Manhattan apartment. No one else is awake, so she leaves her home to take a closer look. On one side of the hole, just below the street's surface, is a perfectly preserved room. Before morning, the sinkhole is gone.

But Ananka had seen it and sets about investigating the Shadow City, a city built beneath the streets of New York. Fortunately for Ananka, her parents are perpetual PhD students and, as such, have a huge library devoted to a variety of arcane subjects. Before long, Ananka is exploring New York City with a copy of Glimpses of Gotham in her hands. She's soon noticed, at school, by a mysterious girl with white hair. Kiki Strike. Suddenly Ananka sees Kiki everywhere.

When Ananka is accused by the school bully, Princess Sidonia (of Pokrovia)* of stealing a diamond ring, Kiki comes to her rescue. And, invites her to (of all things) a girl scout meeting. Kiki has gathered a group of tween girls together, each with a special talent, in order to explore the Shadow City. There's Oona (hacker/forger/genius), Luz (engineer extraordinaire), DeeDee (chemist and explosives expert), Betty (fashion designer and master of disguise), Ananka (who doesn't know why she's there), and, of course, Kiki herself, who's a master spy and kung fu artist. The girls call themselves The Irregulars and hit the tunnels beneath NYC.

Many exciting things happen after the girls begin exploring the tunnels. There's an explosion, Kiki disappears, only to reappear a few years later when a mystery heats up. Kiki Strike is a plot-heavy book in a good way: it's always interesting and keeps you guessing. I didn't know what would happen until the very end. Kirsten Miller's characterization skills are especially adept: each girl has a strong, recognizable character; we don't know Kiki's motives or, indeed, whether she's "good" or "bad" until the final chapter; and Ananka is a hard-headed, reliable narrator with whom the reader empathizes from the first page. Here's what Ananka has to say, for example, about being a girl:
  • "I've always found that one of the biggest benefits of being a girl is that most people refuse to take you seriously. While boys must be constantly monitored and are always the first suspects when anything goes wrong, everyone expects girls to do what they're told. It may seem a little insulting at first, but low expectations can be a blessing in disguise. If you're smart, you can use people's foolishness to your own advantage. It's amazing what you can get away with when no one bothers watching."

Kiki Strike is highly, highly recommended for readers ages nine to ninety nine. It's the perfect book for a long trip or a snowy afternoon. And, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City is Kirsten Miller's first novel. Here's hoping we'll see more of Kiki and friends in the future.


* The fall of the Soviet Union has been a boon for Young Adult authors. Need a kingdom? Look no further! Everyone from Pokrovia speaks Russian in Kiki Strike.