I’d heard of Ally Carter before — her Gallagher Girls books came up as cover references when we were working on St Mallory’s Forever, for example, although I never actually read them. I also saw her books in the library often enough, but the series was always lacking book one, and I didn’t care enough to bother hunting it down.
I recently started volunteering in a different library, though, and came across the first in a new series, the Embassy Row books. It looked like fun, so I decided to give it a go, and I’m really glad I did. This review is my Goodreads review, and I apologise if it’s a bit rambly or unclear — it’s really hard to talk about the things I liked in this book without diving headfirst into spoiler-filled territory, which leads to vague mutterings that probably don’t make much sense to those who haven’t read the book.
This wasn’t at all what I expected, but I loved it. The cover made me think it would be a shallow, fluffy story about teenage espionage of some sort; instead, it was a darker, more emotional story with high stakes and a dozen twists and turns created largely by a fascinating unreliable narrator.
This book explores ideas of grief, mental illness, adrenalin junkies with panic disorders, memory, murder, political drama… and it’s fascinating. Despite a number of eligible characters that raised red flags for me, it even avoids falling into romantic cliches, let alone a love triangle (I have a very sensitive YA romance detector and I enjoy being wrong). Instead, it focuses on a variety of unconventional friendships, and while I can see there’s potential for romance to develop in the sequels, I’m glad it at least has the chance to be more slow-burning.
The embassy setting allows for a diverse bunch of characters with a variety of experiences and skills that allow them to pull off a mission the average teenager wouldn’t manage without seeming TOTALLY unrealistic (although it requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief), and it’s hard not to feel for Grace’s sense of dislocation and homelessness because of her itinerant army upbringing. I’ve lived in the same place all my life, bar uni, so it’s not something I’ve experienced myself, but it came across well in the narrative and in how it shaped some of her personality traits.
I loved Noah — he made me laugh, and he was a good friend without being a pushover. I wished Megan got to have a bit more screentime, but she was very cool when we did see her. She’s the badass hacker of the group, and I liked that she was prepared to stand up for herself at the same time as offering her help. Rosie is also entertaining, but while I enjoyed her contribution to the plot, I didn’t particularly connect with her as a character. There are other characters too, and it would take too long to go over all of them. I did feel Grace’s early encounters with Lila felt a little unnatural and scripted, but the vast majority of the dialogue in the book felt natural and witty.
The mental health side of the book was really engaging. I felt it did a good job of walking the fine line between dismissing a delusion or false memory and demonising mental health issues, and instead showed that somebody can both be mistaken AND deserving of sympathy and health care, and that memories of events can be warped by grief even if the essential facts were still true. Grace’s absolute fear of returning to the psych ward, while still wanting to get better, also showed how important sympathetic mental health care is, and how fear only makes the problem worse. As for the reveal about what ‘actually’ happened… well, I won’t ruin anything for you, but it was powerful.
Put simply, the confusion of reality doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on behind the political scenes, allowing for a plot that works on two levels. Not only are the characters trying to catch a murderer and avoid starting a war, they’re also trying to piece together their own history, however painful it might be.
This book was darker, more mature, and far more powerful than I thought it was going to be from the cover and the blurb, which had led me to dismiss it as aimed at younger or less mature readers. I was wrong. That’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover, and while I don’t know if all Ally Carter’s books are like this one, I might not pass over them so quickly in the library next time I see them.