Remember that one cool time in the Star Wars prequels when Anakin Skywalker learns that the Queen Padme Amidala he’d been speaking with wasn’t actually the queen, but a servant standing in her place to protect her from the enemies? Twist that moment into something with teeth– with conquerors and spies and a dark, detested princess– and tell it from the servant’s point-of-view, and you’ve got Somaiya Daud‘s Mirage— aka something much better than The Phantom Menace.
Amani is an unassuming botanist’s daughter with a love of poetry and family, cautiously optimistic despite the brutal Vathek empire’s conquest of Cadiz, the moon on which she was born and raised. That all changes on the day that Vathek guards steal her away from her family for an unexpected and sinister purpose: Amani is nearly identical to the half-Vathek, half-Kushaila Princess Maram, the vicious soon-to-be queen, and has been chosen to serve as her double. As threats against Maram grow, Amani must learn her mannerisms and take her place in public. The operation is top secret and failure to fool even the people closest to Maram will result in Amani’s death. Can she become another person, even one as heartless as Maram, to save herself?
Mirage is a sci-fi novel, but like any good sci-fi story, is uses real world cues to develop rich worldbuilding. Steeped in Moroccan culture and history, Mirage is about colonialism and cultural oppression. The Vathek or “Vath” repress the Kushaila people with all their might, trying to change their ways to meet Vath standards, and the Kushaila cling to their traditions in spite of it all. You’ll get your fill of spaceships and new planets, but there’s a strong human element to accompany it.
Amani is such an engrossing character because of the way she uses her terrifying but wholly unique situation to create her own narrative. She is under constant threat, but she’s no simpering maiden awaiting a savior. The ability to carefully imitate Maram is a twisted gift– one she can use to her advantage. Amani is always carefully pushing the envelope and you can’t help but root for her, even as you fear for her.
Though the story is told through Amani’s POV, we’re introduced to many ways that the dynamic of colonialism compels and complicates the lives of other characters. Maram is too Kushaila for the Vath and too Vathek for the Kushaila, belonging to no culture and thus reviled by all. Though my heart of hearts resisted, this detail made Maram a wildly compelling character. She is someone who has never been loved or respected, and in return she has no basis for giving love or respect. I’m not sure that she quite reaches “antihero” status, but she’ll leave you very curious and a bit confused.
Meanwhile, Maram’s fiance Idris is a highborn Kushaila raised by the Vath after a peace treaty, who feels his heritage but doesn’t know much about it and can never express his love for it. There’s a depth to him that’s gone unnoticed by the Vath. This almost immediately attracts Amani to him and while I did like Idris as a character, the romance felt predictable and could be considered instalove. Amani didn’t get helplessly swoony the second she laid eyes on him, but things move pretty quickly.
There’s a lot going on in this story and to spill it all would be a disservice to readers, but you’ll see Amani navigating some sticky situations, particularly as her relationships with Maram and Idris evolve and the Vathek decide it’s time to crush the Kushaila rebellion on Cadiz. Maram may soon be queen, but it’s Amani’s keen thinking that will have to guide her there.
Mirage is very much a character study and as such, it wasn’t super high on action. I didn’t miss it much, as the story is well-told and psychological, which was plenty enough to keep my attention. In the rare moments when action pops up, the tension is just as it needs to be. Amani’s story is a classic tale of rebellion in its own way, just not by the blood-and-glory means that YA has recently come to associate with the act (at least, not in book one.)
Overall, Mirage is a worthy sci-fi fantasy with relatable roots that will thrill audiences who love character depth and political intrigue in their novels.
RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS
Mirage hits bookshelves tomorrow, August 28, 2018. You can preorder it now via Amazon or support your local bookstore via Indiebound!
In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.
But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.
As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.