Hardcover, 320 pages
YA SFF, Romance. Ages 13+
Mirage opens cinematically. In the only section not introduced by a location, a Kushaila rebel youth is sent to assassinate one of their conqueror’s heir. The scene cuts to an Andalaan moon and a rural agricultural community of where our protagonist Amani’s majority day, a rite of adulthood. This is the day she is kidnapped in order to play the body double to the hated half-Vathek princess Maram.
In celebrating her majority day, Amani finds joy and solace from the conquering forces in the traditions and legacies of her people. Receiving the daan–facial tattoos telling the story of her family line, her mother, and their hopes for her–is a life-affirming moment. And they’ll be taken from her, as will what little physical difference can be detected between herself and the heiress apparent.
Daud will demonstrate both the cruelty of Maram and the Vath in a way not easily dismissed. The Vath are portrayed as relentless practitioners of colonial genocide and cultural erasure. Descriptors such as white skinned, platinum blonde, blue-eyed, austere aesthetics, postures, and antics are images we can retrieve from our non-SFF cultural caches.
Maram, whose mother is Kushaila like Amani, is not pure enough for the Vath; her right to rule threatened by a pure-blood elder half-sister. Neither has her Vath-supremacist bred approach endeared her to the Kushaila side of her family; and the rebellion will think nothing of eliminating her. Amani finds that she is not only tasked with risking assassination, but to navigating both sides of Maram’s family dynamics during a time when Maram must secure her place as ruler. Indeed, the majority of Amani’s assignments are less about possible assassination and more about how Maram just doesn’t want to participate in that familial event.
If the event involves the Kushaila or Maram’s fiancé Idris, Amani is fine with that. Fans of the swoon-worthy hero will adore Idris. And interactions with the Kushaila are a welcome reprieve as we see more Amani than her Maram-impressions and we learn of a culture sharp with wit, rich in poetry, fierce, mythic, and feminist. Portraits like Amani’s parents are a pleasure to read. The existence of her religion’s prophetess Massinia is a fascination.
It isn’t just the unexpected slow burn to the political intrigue, but the intimations of Massinia’s role in Mirage that had me suspecting this was book one. Meeting a rebel leader cinched it. What is of interest to me, in this interaction with a potential Massinia-incarnate is Amani’s reflection afterward.
“Neither of us asked for such faces, for marks, for fate, and they’d been thrust on us anyway.”
Though the thought is for another, it helps us in better understanding Amani’s shift in thinking about Maram. Yes, Mirage spends time relating Amani’s ideas about and feelings toward Maram. The word pity is used more than a few times. But the progression is difficult and I question the author’s success. Even Maram finds it absurd (233).
Daud builds a depth of feeling behind Amani’s relationship with her mother and the daan in physical terms so that when Amani’s bones are ground and rounded off and her daan stolen, we are properly horrified and aggrieved. We are asked to believe that if Amani doesn’t go along, something even worse will happen. We might suspect, after the burning of the fields, that threat includes her family—maybe, because she thinks maybe she could survive to find an opportunity for escape. It’s a vague idea that becomes even more so. And within pages of action, what Maram has done becomes a distant memory, or better, something you might see in “Kushaila folktales” (278).
I suppose the protagonist’s own shift in attitude/perspective could inspire her enemy’s shift. The narrative is Amani in the first person. As Amani grows in confidence as to who she is and that she is capable of the tasks set before her, she appears less afraid of Maram. As Amani no longer sees Maram as the enemy, she no longer is. The explanation for Maram’s cruelty shifts to her father, King Mathis, or the Nadine, a member of the High Vath. Amani offers Maram another opportunity, and Maram takes it…until…
At first I thought the prologue was setting up the threat against Maram, an inciting action to seek out whom Amani would become. There was a glimmer of suspicion that the cut to Chapter One was shift backwards in time, that we would be racing toward The Prologue’s event. But there was little pacing to confirm the ‘glimmer,’ only the ending.
The political intrigue is the only part of the novel that seems to slowly unfold in this smooth quick read. Baud’s writing is clean and the Kushaila culture is compelling. She’s entertaining, but any tensions contrived are always fleeting. Amani proves a more than capable mimic and political actor. Idris is perceptive. Maram’s ascent is easier than we’d been led to believe. And it’s with Maram’s confirmed inheritance that everyone else must now return their previously assigned seating and its requisite uncertainty of survival.
If you are a plot-driven reader, Mirage will read like a novel-length stage setting for the political thriller and revolt to come. Mirage will become future novels’ backstory, more interested in establishing the characters of not only individuals, but of a people and their cultures. I loved the world Daud has built, its history and the Kushaila. I enjoyed the novel, but there was always an underlying sigh wondering why this couldn’t just be written as a stand-alone. I worry that Court of Lions (expected in 2019) will be a slightly more amped version of the same slow-burning intrigue and revolt in order to wring a third book out of Amani’s plight. I hope to be surprised. Either way, I know it will involve a beautifully textured protagonist, culture, and mythology; which are things to look forward to returning to.
Mirage is Somaiya Daud’s debut novel. She’ll be one to watch.
Recommended for readers of sci-fi fantasy, romance, and/or mythologies. For readers of poetry, culture, and/or the consequences of colonialism. If you read diversely, if you like fem-friendly reads. If you are fan of Star Wars, The Book Nut and I both had Star Wars come to mind during the reading.
The “colonialism, appropriation, suppression, and erasure,” I got, but Kirkus’ reviewer was able to place Mirage in contexts I was ignorant of and I wanted to share:
Daud’s debut, set in a Moroccan proxy world, addresses colonialism, appropriation, suppression, and erasure, along with orientalist tropes. Readers may recognize a possible reference to William Beckford’s gothic orientalist novel Vathek, used to describe invading colonizers. In addition to a cast of characters of color, Daud also introduces concepts specific to the Indigenous Amazigh of Northwest Africa, including the warrior queen Dihya, who serves as a symbol of feminism and anti-colonialism.