Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen
A lonely orphan with a dangerous secret. Not just another blonde-haired, blue-eyed little monster. Trapped inside a world full of lies, when does a schoolgirl become a spy.
Set against the high-tension, pressure-cooker backdrop of Germany in the late 1930’s, Orphan Monster Spy follows Sarah, a young Jewish girl, who is forced to flee following the brutal death of her mother as they try to escape persecution. Trained in the art of the theatre by her mother, Sarah is cunning and quick, sly and intelligent. And she soon attracts the attention of a British spy. Her mission is simple, but it will turn her into the thing she loathes most. She must infiltrate the Bund Deutscher Madel and win a place at Rothenstadt, a prestigious finishing school for the daughters of high-ranking Aryan officials. There, she must befriend the daughter of a top nuclear scientist by becoming one of the monsters. By forgetting everything she is. But she is a little fish in a sea of sharks, and every slip of the tongue could be her last.
Okay, I have to start by telling you guys how excited I was when this turned up on my door. So, I arrived home the other day from my lecture to discover a package labelled for me. This is the first book mail I’ve gotten outside of things I’ve chosen for myself, so I frantically tore into the envelope. Inside was a beautiful black box, containing Orphan Monster Spy, a gorgeous black and gold postcard from the woman who sent me the book, a letter explaining some of the background information on the author, Matt Killeen, and a little handwritten quote about the importance of history to our society. I may or may not have squealed with joy.
That feeling stayed with me through most of the novel. Sarah, a Jewish gymnast turned spy, was an awesome kick-ass protagonist, and I loved how sassy she was even when she was in danger. She was intelligent and quick, always managing to twist sticky situations to her advantage. I found her very fresh and intriguing, many books often accidentally make a character too headstrong, too aggressive, too powerful. Sarah turned out to be none of those things. Instead, her voice shines through the pages, and you start to care quite quickly about all the mess she’s waded into. Killeen’s character development doesn’t really extend too much to some of the other characters, Mouse is a bit blurry around the edges, Sarah’s spy handler, Captain Flynn is deliberately mysterious and closed off, and Elsa (the girl Sarah is trying to befriend) is interesting but not particularly refined. Still, I demand that you read some of Killeen’s character descriptions and not be entertained. Like this one:
‘He was not comfortably plump or slightly overfed, not jolly, round or chubby as some people can be, but excruciatingly bulbous. It was a fatness that looked like it came fro a deliberate, sustained and highly disciplined over-consumption that had no hint of pleasure in it. The increasing sense of hunger that had been a feature of the last few years yawned to life inside Sarah and she knew instantly that she loathed this man.’ – p. 93
Spectacular, right? Killeen’s descriptions of each character Sarah encounters are sharp, witty and striking. Each time I thought they couldn’t get better, I turned the page and bam they did.
Yet, perhaps the most interesting thing about the book though is that it occupies a very innovative space in YA. Yes, I’ve read historical fiction before, but adding the spy element turned Orphan Monster Spy into a rollercoaster ride. You don’t have to know that much about World War Two to keep up, although as a history nerd, I did appreciate all the German words and little nods to historical events along the way. Like The Book Thief, it is possible to simply curl up and read without having to google everything as you go. Incorporating spies into the novel was a total stroke of genius, I found myself on the edge of my seat through most of the book, nervously clutching the handle of my coffee mug as I checked to see what was happening. Again, this is in large part down to Killeen’s excellent character development. But it is also the historical context that lends each death-defying moment such a sharp edge; knowing what might befall Sarah if she fails, if people discover she’s Jewish, is absolutely a driving force behind such tension. The last few chapters in particular, are a white-knuckle surge through some terrifying rapids of plot-twists and drama. I won’t spoil them, but honestly, be prepared. If you make the mistake of picking up this book late at night, you should know that you’re committing yourself to an all-nighter of one-more-chapter syndrome.
The only time this doesn’t really work [IMO] is right at the start of the novel. Orphan Monster Spy begins in media res, or right in the centre of an action scene. We see Sarah running for her life moments after her mother’s horrifying death, as she struggles to escape to safety and away from the Nazis chasing her. It’s all a bit jumbled, even more so because Sarah hears her mother’s voice in her head telling her to be careful, what to do etc. and even though it is in italics to make it stand out, it’s all a bit higgledy-piggeldy. Possibly because readers are lacking most of the information needed to follow it [we later learn that her mother was an actress who was prevented from working because she was Jewish]. In the opening scene, however, we lack this knowledge, and so it’s a bit confusing to follow. And while I care about Sarah even in the opening chapter, and fear for her safety, it is more the generic feeling I would have about anyone in that situation. I’ve done my GCSE history, I know what happened to people who were caught. Unfortunately, at that exact moment in time, I don’t really know enough about Sarah to care about her as an individual. It’s only later, once the pace has slowed and I’ve started to learn about her as a protagonist, that I begin to be invested in her well-being.
Still, as a debut novel, Orphan Monster Spy certainly packs a punch. I read it in two sittings [and if I didn’t have somewhere to be yesterday morning, it would have been one]. I love the way it takes history and adds some exciting spying into the mix. What emerges is a strong book, one which I imagine will capture the attention of many thrill-seeking readers. 8.5/10 from me, and I look forward to reading some more of Matt’s books in the future.
Orphan Monster Spy is available on March 8th 2018 in paperback [UK] priced £7.99 and published by Usborne for YA and adult readers.