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.
I am, as the poets say, a fucking mess over this book.
I love this book for many reasons: least of which that lately I’ve been full of the restless, dissatisfied energy that seemed to move into my heart after finishing a book, I’ve been chasing that particular high you only get from certain rare stories – the ones that make you want to press the book against your chest and try to soak up the gorgeous literature via osmosis, the ones that resonate with you on a strange personal level, like a reminder of something that was once very dear to you but has somehow been forgotten; and chief of which is the ragged awe of reading something so achingly familiar, a story that feels like home, and the most gentle and glowy emotion in your chest at the knowledge that your culture has found its way into the YA fare and has been brought to an audience who likely would not have known about it otherwise.
So, what is this book about?
Mirage is set in a Moroccan proxy world called Cadiz, a moon of the planet Andala which has been conquered by the Vath, a ruthless empire from another planet intent on erasing the customs and traditions of the Cadiz people. During her community’s traditional coming of age ceremony, 18-year-old Amani is violently stolen from her family in an impoverished village on Cadiz, and held captive in the imperial palace, Ziyaana, where she is shocked to find that she bears a striking resemblance to the half-Vathek princess, Maram vak Mathis, who is known to be as cruel and unforgiven as her Vathek father but with the face of her Kushaila mother. In response to increased rebel attacks, Amani is forced to train to become the princess’s body double.
“I had lost a battle I’d never been equipped to fight. I’d been stripped of all things that were meant to be mine, that Dihya had blessed me with, and now – how could I keep myself, preserve myself, if I had none of myself left?
If all I had was Maram?”
Mirage is drawn from recent Moroccan history, especially a historical episode known as The Years of Lead – the period in Morocco between the 1960s and 1980s under the reign of Hassan II that was notable for violent crackdowns against dissent that ranged from poetic expression to the insistence on the recognition of Morocco’s many indigenous groups. The book also addresses the enduring wounds of colonialism, appropriation, injustice, suppression and erasure along with orientalist tropes. And Amani’s experiences of prejudice and structural inequalities draw vivid parallels with our world, without allowing a didactic message to dominate.
But what is most fascinating about this book is the way the author taps into a rich imaginative lineage as she weaves Northwest African mythology into a bespoke world that resonates with our own. Andalan is truly a treat of a fantasy world, fully-formed and entirely thought-out, with a thematically rich mythology and a gorgeous imagery. Many elements of the story are modeled on concepts specific to the Amazigh – an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa that predates the Arabs of Morocco but that’s been historically left out of the political process and severely marginalized, like the warrior queen Dihya (also known as Kahena) who still serves as a symbol of empowerment and feminism and anti-colonialism.
With a propulsive pacing and a compelling narrative, the story felt like a gaping chasm of possibilities, fearful and breathless and awed. There was a sense of magic, of possibility and of anxious danger as Amani enters a world that is as alluring as it is treacherous, as she learns to navigate the complexities of court and the machinations of politics, as her days as a prisoner in the imperial palace become increasingly bleak and she finds solace in poetry. Throughout her journey, Amani slowly develops the resilience needed to fight back. I love how she starts out as someone who is furious at the injustices being committed against her indigenous community but feels as if she is uncapable of doing anything about it, that she is too small for the skin she wanted to carry. But by the end of the novel, she becomes a person who can be a rebel, a person who not only has found the strengh to endure – but to act.
“The crown of Dhiya has been stripped from me, my face changed, my body broken. But I was not a slave and I was not a spare. I was my mother’s daughter, and I would survive and endure. I would find my way home.”
I also loved how the rest of the characters have been humanized by giving them the room to be fully fleshed and multidimensional instead of diminishing the full spectrum of their personality and presence. The reluctant friendship that emerges between Amani and Maram, the princess, positions itself structurally as the heart of the book, as Amani finds out that Maram is a forgery. The half-Vathek, half-Kushaila princess has lived her life being too foreign for her conquered people, too foreign for her conquering empire, never enough for both. Her cruelty is merely her last attempt at hardening her heart into armor and chiseling herself into a harder but ultimately, a less truer version of herself.
The romance between Amani and Maram’s fiancé, Idris, is definitely trope-based and kind of insta-lovey which would have otherwise made the cynic I am at heart cringe inwardly. But honestly? I loved how it wasn’t the crux of the book. Amani, as a strong female character with a strong, compelling narrative is a teen navigating love, intimacy, and affection without being denied depth of character.
And all of it makes it so exciting to remember that this is just the first book of a duology. We’ll get to see the author develop her mythological system and work out the first-book kinks over the course of this series. There’s definitely a lot to look forward to.
“Happiness is rebellion.”