Book Review: Scarlett Undercover, Jennifer Latham (2015)

May 20th, 2015 12:06 pm by Kelly Garbato

A BAMF WOC protagonist, smart & snappy dialogue, & a one-eyed rescue dog – what more do you need?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The funny thing was, I’d always been a skeptic when it came to Qadar. I didn’t like the idea that everything was already set, that no matter what choices I made, my path through life had been mapped out a long time ago. But ever since Gemma had showed up at my door, fate had yanked the steering wheel from my hands and hit the gas pedal hard. This case wasn’t just about some rich kid getting messed up by a cult. It was about old devils and new ones. It was about my faith. My family. About me.

In the wake of their parents’ tragic and untimely deaths, sisters Reem and Scarlett adopt different means of coping with their grief and anger. Reem decides to become a doctor, with the ultimate goal of opening a clinic that caters to Muslim women. Perhaps if Las Almas had already had one such practice, her Ummi might have sought treatment for the cancer destroying her brain before it was too late to do anything but watch her waste away. Reem also becomes more devout in her religion, taking up the hijabs worn by her Ummi, and encourages her younger sister to partake in daily prayers.

Meanwhile, Scarlett is still reeling from her Abbi’s murder several years previous. After years of acting out – culminating in an arrest for hot-wiring a Lexus in ninth grade – Detective Emmet Morales takes an active role in her upbringing. The then-beat cop who handled the notification for her Abbi’s case, Emmet becomes an adopted member of Scarlett’s family, even standing in as a pallbearer at her Ummi’s funeral. He puts Scarlett to work, starting with easy cases: seeing if liquor stores will sell to an underage girl, scouting for pickpockets in tourist traps. When she demonstrates a knack for the “gumshoe,” the real fun begins. Understandably bored at school, Scarlett graduates early – by two years – and opens her own P.I. business.

Which is where we meet her at the beginning of Scarlett Undercover. Her newest client is an impossibly adorable, be-goggled nine-year-old named Gemma. Her older brother Oliver’s recent “dark” turn in behavior has her concerned. The girl in the pale pink jumper doesn’t pull any punches: “I think my brother killed someone.”

What starts out as a bit of a pity case – suffering may be Reem’s Kryptonite, but Scarlett just can’t say no to a child in need – quickly morphs into something much more dangerous and sinister. Before she can say “As-salaamu alaikum”, Scarlett and her loved ones are caught up in an ancient battle involving King Solomon’s ring, a rare jar that may or may not be a portal to another world, and an exiled race of jinn that are hell-bent on revenge against humankind. Oh, and Scarlett is destined to be a key player, just like her Abbi before her.

Compared to the Archer case, catching the Bus Stop Killer was a piece of cake.

I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy – and haven’t really read any urban fantasy to speak of – so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Scarlett Undercover. As it turns out, I kind of loved it. While the plot proved entertaining enough, it’s the characters who steal the show.

Scarlett is pretty much the raddest protagonist you could ask for. Book smart, street smart, kick-ass – but not entirely bad-ass (she’s got a soft spot for scared kids and abused dogs, and would rather not kill when a swift blackjack to the temple works just as well) – Scarlett is a narrator with both heart and wit to spare. The dialogue is snarky and snappy and oftentimes had me snorting (and occasionally even laughing) out loud. Savvy yet not jaded, Scarlett isn’t afraid to drop a truth bomb now and again: she frequently calls out sexism, rape culture, Islamophobia, classism, and like, with insight and humor – and all without interrupting the flow of the story.

Warrior woman she may be, Scarlett’s not an island. One of the things I love about Scarlett Undercover is its diversity: Scarlett is part of an extended, adopted family, which is as tight-knit as it is diverse, both ethnically and religiously. Once Scarlett was made an orphan by the death of her Ummi, her care fell to multiple people: primarily her sister Reem, with whom Scarlett continues to live in their late parents’ apartment. But also Delilah, her mother’s best friend – a white Jewish woman who has a biracial son with her ex-boyfriend, Asim, a Muslim of Middle Eastern descent. Deck and Scarlett have been friends since childhood; now they’re flirting with the possibility of a romantic entanglement. Detective Morales – a black man – is also quite involved in Reem and Scarlett’s lives, as is Mook, her self-described “guardian angel.”

While Scarlett’s education is a main point of concern for Reem – Scarlett persuaded her sister to let her put off college for a few years, while she pursues her passion for the gumshoe – religion remains a point of contention as well. While the newly religious (yet still fairly liberal) Reem doesn’t try to force religious edicts on her sister, she does try to use Friday prayers as a chance to schedule family time: “I can’t force you to believe what you don’t, Lettie. […] But you have to commit to something, even if it’s only showing up for Jumu’ah.” Other family friends, like Mook and Manny, are a bit pushier; and the more fundamentalist Asim only accepts Scarlett’s role in the story in spite of her gender (as he articulates in a rather irritating monologue).

I’ve always wondered what a true “character-driven” SF/F novel might look like – for what is a story without a solid plot? But the characters in Scarlett Undercover really do make the story, with Scarlett’s unique voice leading the charge. The result feels like an urban fantasy blend of Veronica Mars, Supernatural, and Ms. Marvel. So much fun. And learning, too!

When rating a book, I usually reserve the highest 5-star rating for those I plan on reading again – twice, three times, even more. While I greatly enjoyed Scarlett Undercover, I don’t think it’s the type of story that would benefit from a re-read. That said, I really hope it’s the first in a series: I’d love to see Scarlett and Deck again.

2012-08-11 - Dogs Outside - 0018

My own one-eyed wonder, Ralphie (rest in peace).

Ditto: Jones; mad props to Latham for not going the tried and true route of killing the dog. (Every. Single. Time.)

And I’d also love to see a story from Reem’s perspective; I’m sure there’s some mythic role Latham could dig up for a healer, no? In any case, she’s a character I’d like to get to know a little better.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Scarlett and her older sister Reem are black and Muslim; their Ummi “came from a long line of Sudanese Muslim musicians with songs in their blood,” while their Abbi’s side of the family is of Egyptian descent. Detective Emmet Morales is also black, with “blue-black skin, black-brown eyes, and neat little dreads all over his head.” Their mother’s best friend, Delilah, is Jewish – but she was once involved with a Middle Eastern Muslim man named Asim; their son, Deck, is biracial. Many (but not all) of the Children of Iblis are Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. Other minor characters include Mrs. Soo, the Korean woman who runs the Laundromat on top of which Scarlett’s office is located; and Mr. Prazsky, Scarlett’s Ukrainian super. On a larger scale, the plot includes elements of Jewish and Muslim theology, and challenges everything Scarlett thought she knew about her family and her faith.


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