As some readers might remember, I had very ambiguous feelings about Kirsten Miller’s first Kiki Strike book Inside the Shadow City. Although I loved the cover art and most of the characters, I felt like the book didn’t live up to its full potential. Despite my misgivings (and the fact that no one shared them), I remained optimistic about Kiki Strike #2, feeling confident that it would be better than the first since Miller would have had more time with the characters she was writing about and to iron out her writing voice (which I thought was inconsistent in the first book).
Well, I finally had a chance to read Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb (2007) by Kirsten Miller and am very happy to say, my hopes were not unfounded as this book was definitely better than the first in the series. Although this book does follow up on plot points from the first book, this one does stand alone. There is enough summary of important information that, if you read the first one a while ago (or not at all), the storyline will still make sense.
The story once again follows the Irregulars–brilliant albeit sometimes misguided Girl Scouts who were recruited by girl spy extraordinaire Kiki Strike to help her map Manhattan’s secret Shadow City and protect it from criminal exploitation. This time, however, the Shadow City is not the major plot. Kiki and narrator Ananka Fishbein also take a back seat to fellow Irregular Oona Wong who, for lack of a better word, is the star of this story–just look at the cover if you don’t believe me.
Master forger turned entrepreneur and sometimes blackmailer, Oona has always been one of my favorite characters and I was really happy to see more of her in this book. Unfortunately, the Irregulars don’t feel the same as they grow tried of Oona’s continued snark and snobbery. To make matters even worse, that means no one has time to hear Oona’s important news.
That isn’t to say that the other girls don’t have problems. Kiki’s life is in danger (again). Ananka’s mother is threatening to send her to a boarding school in Virginia of all places if she can’t get her grades up. Meanwhile Betty, the group’s master of disguise, seems to have attracted the attentions of the giant squirrels that have started wandering the city’s parks. Add to the mix a haunted mansion, a prodigal parent, and Oona’s dramatic secret and you have a story jam-packed with excitement.
The tone of The Empress’s Tomb feels a lot more even than Miller’s first Kiki Strike book. I suspect this has to do with the book being grounded in one time period instead of starting with the characters at the age of twelve the way the first book did. In addition to being a fast-paced read, the novel also offers an interesting commentary on secrets (when to keep them and when to share them) as almost every character has something up her sleeve in the way of hidden information.
Speaking of information, Miller also once again includes some of Ananka’s useful information at the end of some chapters. Her findings include: how to be mysterious (learn to be quiet and invent a secret among other things), how to find information in people’s trash (and what to avoid placing into your own trash), as well as a quiz on events in the book that, were I a teacher, I might assign to students if I had them read this book in class–which I really could. Because Miller writes a good story with a lot of practical information that could be applied to everyday life (maybe you’ll never be digging through someone’s trash, but it’s good to be aware of what people might find if they dug through yours). That is one of the reasons I stuck with Kiki Strike, and one of the reasons The Empress’s Tomb was so much fun to read: Miller doesn’t just write a good story she writes a good, informative (and fun) story.
Possible Pairings: Ghost Huntress by Marley Gibson, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine