Mirage is a YA fantasy novel based on a recent historical period from the author’s ancestral land of Morocco. Known as the Years of Lead, it was a bloody episode during which dissidents were arrested or executed. In spite of the heavy subject matter, the author tells a charming story of love, friendship and being true to yourself.
In the Mizaal Galaxy there are stars and planets and moons – and rebels. A recent war has left the Imperialistic Vath in control of the region and the native tribes of the planet Andala and her terraformed moons are now their subjects. Given the Vath’s predilection for extreme violence, any resistance to their control receives a harsh and swift answer. In spite of that, small groups of Andalaan insurgents are plotting to regain control of their homelands. Known simply as the rebellion, these fighters wreak havoc on their conquerors, determined to throw off the dictatorship of Vath King Mathis and his daughter, the deeply unpopular Crown Princess Maram.
On Cadiz, a moon of Andala, it is the night of Amani’s majority and she is beyond excited. As a young girl of the Kushaila tribe, tonight’s ceremony means she will finally receive her daan, the special facial tattoos which mark out familial lineage and your parent’s hopes for your future. It has been a tough week, with rebels hiding in the fields and the Vath destroying those fields in retaliation. People wonder what the village will do for food and how many will be lost but in spite of that, tonight there will be a party. Amani’s evening has had a fortuitous start; she has been given special gifts by her mother and brother which seem to promise a bright future. Amani practically floats to the ceremony. When all the girls who are celebrating that night have received their marks, there is feasting and laughter and music. Until the Vath show up.
All the girls having their majority are lined up as the droid soldiers of their imperial conquerors scan each face, looking, Amani assumes, for rebels. But when they scan her face, they come to a stop. Her surprised resistance leads to violence, so Amani suppresses her fears and goes quietly with her captors.
Arriving at the imperial palace, she expects to be tortured for information about the rebels who had recently hidden in her town. It’s information she doesn’t have. Instead she learns she is to be the body double for Princess Maram. Maram has the heart of her cruel father and the face of her mother, the last Kushaila queen of Andala. The perfect blend of conqueror and conquered, Maram has no love for her mother’s people or their ways. She plans to continue her father’s violent rule – if she can survive long enough to gain power.
During their initial meeting, Amani learns firsthand that the rumors of Maram’s cruel nature are true. When Amani answers a question Maram asks with a less than desired deference, Maram has her hunting hawk grab Amani by the shoulder and drag her across the room. As Amani lays bleeding at Maram’s feet, she assures Amani that worse – far worse – awaits her and her family if she is anything but a pliable, biddable doll for the Imperial palace to mold as they see fit. With such incentive, Amani quickly learns how to dress, talk and speak like the princess until she is an exact replica of Maram.
Then she meets Idris ibn Salih, Maram’s fiancé who, like Amani and Maram, has Andalaan heritage. But unlike Maram, Idris embraces his culture and is a kind and gentle person. Soon, time spent with him is Amani’s only joy. Which is a very dangerous thing, for he belongs to Maram and Maram tolerates no rivals.
This is a slow burn story which focuses on relationships over action. Maram, Amani and Idris all live in highly volatile and dangerous positions within a warring political system. While galactic law demands that Maram inherit the planets once under her mother’s rule, thereby turning the Vath less into conquerors and more into legitimate heirs, there is plenty of opposition to that plan. Maram is dealing with both Vathek prejudice for her mixed blood, and a possible coup as relatives on her father’s side of the family consider how best to usurp her throne. She has been raised with only survival in mind, leaving her with a cruel and vindictive nature. Kindness to her mother’s people could be seen as either weakness or treason and both would lead to her being deposed. Yet as Amani discovers, Maram longs for true friendships. As the two girls get to know each other, a gradual softening occurs, allowing them to see value in each other.
Idris is a prince with no power. His family, once rulers within the Andala system, have almost all been killed, and those that haven’t are hostage to his good behavior. He is another nod to galactic law, serving as a royal stud who will increase the Andalaan strain of blood on Maram’s side of the vak Mathis line. Having learned to navigate his position through charm and intellect, he’s gained Maram’s affection as well as the love of all the people in Andala and its satellites. His precarious position is made even more vulnerable by his growing affection for Amani. She, not Maram, seems to understand his dreams, wishes and hopes for the future, but Amani’s life doesn’t belong to her and any relationship could see them, and their families killed and the people of Andala punished for the betrayal.
The prose here is smooth and the well-drawn characters are reminiscent of Western teens (and perhaps teens everywhere) in that they are searching for themselves and for where they fit into the world. That they lean more towards introspection than action makes sense given the nature of the story. Embedded into the prose are some images that are perhaps not easily accessible to Westerners such as the warrior queen Dihya, (also called Kahina) a Berber who fought against the Muslim invasion of Maghreb and the use of the term Vathek for the invaders, which refers to an eighteenth century French Orientalist novel which featured an Arabian caliph who denounces Islam and after a series of misadventures, winds up in hell. The themes they represent, though, – of female leadership, of the evils of colonial rule – are easily understood from the text.
Mirage is very much a first book which sets up the world and characters of which our adventure will be made. Perfectly designed to appeal to fans of Sabaa Tahir and Renee Ahdieh, this tale will make an excellent addition to any YA library.