This review was written in 2006 for an older incarnation of

book coverby Kirsten Miller

The mere sight of an official-looking person seals men’s lips. These youngsters however, go everywhere and hear everything. They are as sharp as needles too; all they want is organization.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Kiki Strike a twelve-year-old girl with no pigment in her skin and a collection of improbably skilled girl-scout-reject companions called the Irregulars. (The Conan Doyle callouts don’t end there.) This first book in the series sends them scurrying through a forgotten city beneath Manhattan, a restored castle on Roosevelt Island, and the halls of a private school on the Upper East Side. Interspersed throughout are a series of narrative narrative asides explaining useful things like:

  • How to Follow Someone Without Getting Caught
  • How to Take Advantage of Being a Girl
  • How to Plan an Escape Route
  • How to Tell a Lie

It’s cute. If I’d had it around when I was nine, I’d have read it till the covers fell off and copied the helpful asides into a notebook to keep by my bed. (I’d probably also have a record.) The book’s quick pace glosses over events that strain credulity, and the combination of espionage and urban archeology is clever and engaging.

But does it work for older readers? I blew through it in a few hours and enjoyed myself while reading, but the slickness that makes Kiki Strike go down like a fresh, sweet oyster left me a little unnerved after I’d finished. As a grownup, I can see the work that went into making this book so marketable, and I’m not sure it doesn’t do the book real harm by making its edges so smooth.

The six girls who make up the Irregulars are a suspiciously multicultural crew, each with her own specialized skill; they feel a bit like literary Bratz dolls. Miller emphasizes the book’s girl-power message enough to be perfectly clear to her youngest readers, and her narrator, Ananka, is neither too good nor too bad at anything. The Irregulars even have their own marketing-friendly icon, which is reproduced all over the book’s website. All told, the book feels as though it’s been edited a hair too heavily.

The book is a piece of openly commercial fiction, of course, and if it’s a smarter, more engaging work than most of the terrible girly YA franchises around, then great—right? Thing is, there are glimmers of something more interesting throughout. The spooky early scenes in which Ananka follows Kiki through a silent, snow-covered Central Park (where Kiki serves up Buffy-style justice in a plot thread that’s never really resolved) promise something luminous and strange that never fully materializes. In some of the moments in which Ananka’s fragile trust is shaken, you can feel her growing older and more careful in the space of a few sentences, but the pace at which the book careens toward its guessable ending prevents these moments from blossoming.

Miller’s book performs beautifully as a high-speed, stylish adventure and doubles as a girl’s guide to adventure and self-defense. (It even avoids the obligatory adolescent romance subplot I expected to see shoehorned in near the end, so woo for that.) I suspect that the author will be able to offer even more by stepping back from her publisher’s marketing plan and crystalizing the moments that could make her next book a classic.

Research on Amazon, buy from Powell’s.