Official Summary: 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.
My Thoughts: Before I get into this, I would like to thank Netgalley for providing me with an ARC of this book. This is my first time actually reviewing an ARC (since I always forget I have books on my Kindle) before the book is officially released. Go me for having my shit together for once!
I’ll be doing this review a little bit different than I usually do my book reviews. Typically, I talk about each aspect of the story, starting with the characters. This time, I’m instead going to divide my review because what I like and what I don’t. So we can end on a positive note, I’ll start with the things I didn’t like.
My main issue with this novel is the world-building. This is a sci-fi story based in Moroccan culture. It’s great to see an underrepresented culture portrayed in mainstream YA fiction (in fact, I’ll be getting into this later). The problem is it lacks the seamless integration of most science fiction. Rather than being a speculative take on what Moroccan culture could be like in a futuristic world (that is, in a galaxy far, far away), it reads more like a high fantasy take on Morocco with some spaceships and blasters thrown in. Though it lacks the magic of high fantasy, it reads like a speculative look at the past (which fantasy is).
It’s jarring whenever the characters board a spaceship or Amani, our protagonist, uses a holo. It feels like Daud forced together two puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit. Honestly, this novel would’ve worked better either as historical fiction or fantasy. That way the Moroccan influence could remain mostly unchanged as Daud wants without a random “sci-fi” element taking you out of the story. In fact, this story ultimately fails as a sci-fi novel because it doesn’t have anything to say about the future or technology. It merely includes these sci-fi tokens simply so it can be called sci-fi.
This story also commits one of the cardinal sins of storytelling: instalove. Amani and Idris pretty much fall for each other immediately. It makes you want to roll your eyes. That said, their relationship improves past that point, so I’ll discuss it more later. I just hate how it begins as instalove.
Let’s talk about our protagonist Amani. She’s a good character, but there are things about her and her narration that drive me crazy. The narration is fine except for one giant flaw: Amani’s constant need to remind us how Maram and Idris’ lives are different from hers. We know. You don’t have to keep telling us that Maram has never used farming equipment. We can deduce that based on the fact that she’s a princess who grew up privileged. Quite frankly, writing like this says you don’t trust your audience to grasp that simple distinction. And that’s an insult to our intelligence.
Furthermore, Amani makes some very dumb decisions that shouldn’t work out for her but somehow do. She knows she can’t trust anyone in the palace, and yet she trusts Idris and a few others almost immediately. I smelled betrayal coming a mile away and then… things just kind of worked out instead. Seriously, no matter what risks Amani takes, everything just kind of goes her way. It’s hard to care when the risks no longer feel like risks.
In fact, there’s hardly any stakes in this novel at all. Yes, Amani could be killed if she fails as Maram’s double but… what else? Besides, that threat ceases to be a threat pretty quickly. Why should we care if Amani is courting danger if she never faces punishment? This novel is a series of things going surprisingly well for Amani until the end, when we finally get some real stakes. It’s this that gives me a little more hope for the sequel.
Even though the romance between Amani and Idris is instalove, it’s actually built up really well after that point. It’s very apparent why these two not only love each other, but like each other. They’re friends first. In fact, I’d argue that this is one of the healthiest and most realistic relationships depicted in YA SFF (aside from the fact that they have to hide it, that is). It’s important for young girls to see a relationship between two people who like spending time together. When they’re apart, they miss each other because they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. It’s not about a blurred mix of all-consuming love and lust (though there is definitely some of each); it’s about their emotional and intellectual connection.
However, the relationship that really fascinated me is the one between Amani and Maram. Their dynamic is so complex, a delicate dance in which neither wants to give away too much. Even as their relationship grows and changes, they are still bound by their master/captive roles. Their relationship simply couldn’t be what it is without Amani’s infallible kindness and Maram’s intricate complexities.
Speaking of Maram, she is easily my favorite character in this book. She’s just so, as I said, complex. She is hated by both sides of her family, never quite able to claim her heritage. The Vath see her as impure and lesser, her blood tainted by that of an Andalaan. The Andalaans see her as a symbol of their conquerors and oppressors, a monster like her father. Beneath her anger, she is a frightened girl who wants to do right. She just has no one to trust. I am very excited to see where the next book takes her character.
But that’s not to say Amani isn’t an interesting character. On the contrary, in a world where being a “strong female character” usually just means being a warrior, Amani stands out. We’re allowed to see her fear and sadness, stand by her in moments of weakness. Moreover, what keeps Amani alive in the Vathek world is her kindness and empathy. These allow her to read the people around her more effectively in order to do what needs to be done. Her religion gives her strength, Massinia a beacon of hope for her. However, despite her kindness, she is also willing to make difficult choices— even if this means sacrificing something she loves. While Daud often takes the easy way out and doesn’t let these choices have lasting emotional impact, the fact remains that Amani still makes them. Given that both Amani and Maram have similar flaws, it’s no wonder the girls are so evenly matched in this game of strategy.
Now, as I said earlier, the world-building leaves a lot to be desired. However, the use of Moroccan culture was phenomenal. Whether that be the religious beliefs or coming-of-age symbols like the daan, Morocco is alive in Mirage. I am not in any part Moroccan; however, other reviewers who do claim Moroccan heritage have praised this book’s accuracy, so I will do the same. I really felt transported and it allowed me to see the world through another’s eyes. I applaud and thank Daud for infusing her culture into this brand new world for us.
Overall, despite my complaints, I would still recommend this book. It’s a decent debut and I can only see things going up from here. Where most new YA novels are a mere splash in the pan, Mirage is a veritable wave. It stands out on the basis of being both unique and diverse. While some aspects were brushed over or made too easy, others made this a fun read and a learning experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is, in the desert of mediocre YA stories, Mirage is no mirage.
My Rating: 3.5/5