If you’ve been on Twitter at all in the last two months, you’ve probably seen people getting excited about Mirage, a Moroccan inspired story that blurs the lines between sci fi and fantasy. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s worth the hype, and is an extremely intriguing start to a new series!
Book: Mirage by Somaiya Daud
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided by NetGalley for fair review.
So, I really wasn’t expecting this to be space-y, for some reason! I was surprised when Amani, our protagonist, started talking about planets and intergalactic take-overs. I’m not sure how I missed that, but I’m glad I did, because it made the beginning of the book feel really fresh. I was going into this expecting another YA fantasy along the lines of The Wrath and The Dawn, and while that would have been fine, the sci-fi aspects of this seized my imagination and made the story really stand out. It reads like fantasy, but the tech aspects have been built in beautifully.
Amani, a girl from a moon that was invaded and colonised by the Vathek Empire, is snatched from her simple farming life in a traditional community, and forced to become a body double for the Vathek princess, Maram. She has to learn to navigate the court intrigues as the perfect princess, down to the very last detail – and Maram is not a nice person to become, despite their identical looks. Where Amani is kind and sensitive, Maram is cruel and spoiled, so to begin with it looks like the book will consist of a long training period for Amani – if this was traditional YA, we’d expect the book to be the story of how she passes challenges. However, this part of the book is condensed into a few chapters – she very quickly learns to mimic Maram well, which allows us to explore the Vathek court with her in a much more interesting way.
Amani is a fairly typical YA heroine, in that she’s plucky, kind, and beautiful. She’s deeply tied to her Kushaila culture, which is interesting – I would love to see more of the traditions, artwork, poetry, and so on that the Vath banned. In and of herself, she’s pretty unremarkable, but it’s easy to read in her voice and perfectly pleasant to follow her through the story. Maram, too, could so easily have become the typical villain, and at the beginning, it seems like she will be. However, as Amani spends more time with her, her character is explored carefully and thoughtfully, with so much nuance it’s like nuance soup. Maram’s been shaped by her father, and by the political situations she grew up in – where Amani’s loving family and community has made her kind, Maram’s been facing hatred and too-high expectations since birth, and it’s ruined her. She was easily my favourite character to read about, and I hope that we get to see her grow lots in the next book.
There is a fairly predictable romance, where Amani falls in love with Maram’s arranged fiancé, Idris. He is of course, the only one who can tell them apart, and he is deeply interested in the traditional Kushaila culture, which is the glue that comes to hold Amani and Idris together. Each of them represents to the other a way they can hold on to the things that they have lost to the Vathek Empire – but of course, their relationship is ultimately doomed as Idris must marry Maram. Their relationship was a little bit uncomfortable to me, because although I can see why they fall for each other, they both seemed to fetishise their culture in the other person, rather than loving them for themselves? On the plus-side, though, it wasn’t the focus of the book.
What this book is really about is not Amani or Maram or Idris at all, but about the complex interplay between coloniser and colonised. The Vathek Empire are ‘the bad guys’, sure, and the King is pretty much a caricature Disney villain with his random cruelty and cackling. But watching the three main characters come to terms with their various heritages is fascinating. Amani is Kushaila born and raised, forced to pretend to be Vathek; Idris does a great job of being Vath, having been brought up separate from his Kushaila roots; Maram is half-Vathek, half-Kushaila, brought up wholly Vathek, rejecting her Kushaila roots while the Vath reject her for having them. It’s complicated. No-one has a straightforward relationship with their culture. It’s a difficult subject to approach, and I am sure that as a British white woman, I missed a lot – there are many brilliant own voices reviews out there, so suffice to say, it really made me think.
The main thing that sucked me in with this book, though, was the sheer quality of the prose. It’s descriptive and lush, without ever being too dramatic for the scenes it’s describing. While there isn’t actually very much action after Amani’s kidnap, I never found myself bored, because there was always something going on that made me want to keep reading. The setting, and the world-building, is brilliant, and there are so many details I want to find out.
Small minus point for just… ending? This felt like it needed to be one long book, rather than waiting for a separate sequel, but I get that the market is big for duologies right now. Still, an extremely strong and engaging debut, and I’m looking forward to the sequel! Four out of five cats.