City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

City of Spies by Sorayya Khan
(Little A Books – September 19, 2017)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

CITY OF SPIES is a critically important and fascinating read in our time of political strife and international crisis.

Thank you to Little A for providing me with an advance review copy of this title – all opinions are my own.

Book Description (from Goodreads)

In this intimate coming-of-age story set in the late 1970s, a young girl struggles to make sense of the chaos around her during Pakistan’s political upheaval, where the military revolts, the embassy burns, and a terrible secret tears her world apart.

Eleven-year-old Aliya Shah lives a double life in Islamabad, Pakistan—at home with her Pakistani father and Dutch mother, and at the American School, where Aliya tries to downplay that she is a “half-and-half.” But when a hit-and-run driver kills the son of the family’s servant, Sadiq, who is also Aliya’s dear friend, her world is turned upside down. After she discovers the truth behind the tragedy—a terrible secret that burdens her heart—her conflicted loyalties are tested as never before.

Based on the author’s own experiences growing up in Islamabad, City of Spies offers a poignant and dramatic portrait of a tumultuous time, as seen through the eyes of a brave and compassionate young heroine struggling to find her place in the gray area between loyalty and complicity, family and country.


Set in the late 1970’s in Islamabad, Pakistan, this novel is narrated by a pre-teen girl as she experiences politically and historically monumental events including the Iran Hostage Crisis and the burning of the US Embassy in Islamabad. While these events are occurring, Aliya is also grappling with her own biracial and cultural identity and a tragic accident involving the son of her Pakistani servant. As the child of a father who holds an important place in the government, Aliya attends the American School and is caught in a world between that of her American classmates and Pakistani relatives and neighbors.

As I read this book right after reading HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS by Bianca Marais, I really can’t help comparing the two and recommending that if you liked HUM (set in South Africa during the uprising to end apartheid), you should definitely pick up CITY OF SPIES. The parallels are obvious – narrated by young girl, racial and cultural identity grappled with, political instability, the role of the local population as servants/employees.

Khan’s narrative is incredibly compelling and while it is not a fast read and requires close attention, the uniqueness and necessity of the topic matter put this book into my Best of 2017 category.

LIBRARIAN NOTES: While reading, I definitely was trying to place CITY OF SPIES into a “age” recommendation – it is an adult novel, but the content is such that it can definitely be placed into high school libraries. I would have recommended that it be included in the Adult Books for Teens review section of School Library Journal. Titlewave categorizes the title as Adult and Dewey as 813, which I would disagree with. I would place this in my fiction collection.

GOODREADS NOTE: The original edition of this book published by Aleph Book Company of New Delhi in 2015 is listed as a separate title on Goodreads – there are copious reviews there of the original publication. This listing is for the US publication by Little A, a division of Amazon Publishing.

View all of my Goodreads reviews

Author Profile (from author website)


Photo credit: Barbara Adams

Sorayya Khan is the author of NoorFive Queen’s Road, and City of Spies  which received the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair, 2015

She was awarded a US Fulbright Research Grant to conduct research in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and received a Malahat Review Novella Prize for what became a window into City of Spies.  In 2006, she received a Constance Saltonstall Artist Grant, which took her to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where she interviewed tsunami survivors. Her work has appeared in publications including GuernicaThe Kenyon Review, North American Review, and Journal of Narrative Politics.

She is the daughter of a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother, was born in Europe, grew up in Pakistan, and now lives in New York with her family.

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