Desert Dark

336p. ebook available. Holiday House. Apr. 2016. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780823435623.
Gr 7 Up—Nadia Riley is ready to leave the East Coast with its recent memories of a cheating boyfriend and a two-timing ex-best friend, so the invitation to attend Desert Mountain Academy in Arizona comes at an opportune time. Upon her arrival in Phoenix, Nadia discovers the true nature of the school, which is designed to prepare the nation's best covert operatives. She is also immediately immersed in the intrigue of finding a mole who is bent on killing her. With shades of Neal Shusterman's writing style in Unwind, Stone's debut boasts some strengths and weaknesses. Nadia's ethnic heritage (she's Irish on her father's side and Lebanese on her mother's) has little to no development within the narrative. Instead, the focus is her father's background as a professor of criminology. The plot has more switchbacks and twists than a Himalayan mountain trail. Stone's decision to use third-person narration from different perspectives adequately explains how Nadia has come to be accepted at the prestigious and highly secretive school that will prepare her to become a CIA operative, but keeps readers at a dispassionate distance. The chapters are short, and the author tosses tons of red herrings into a plot that will keep teens guessing as long as they are willing to tolerate a somewhat stilted narrative and some predictable prose. The story ends with a cliff-hanger, making a sequel a foregone conclusion. Give this title to fans of Joy N. Hensley's Rites of Passage, Dan Wells's Partials, Jennifer Lynn Barnes's The Naturals, or Susanne Winnacker's Impostor.
VERDICT A good additional purchase for those seeking strong female protagonists, mystery, or foreign operative adventure.

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