'Mirage' is a YA marvel that weds sci-fi with courtly intrigue

Somaiya Daud's debut novel sets the story of a court rebellion in a Moroccan space fantasy.

Mirage By Somaiya Daud Flatiron Books 320 pp.

Looking for a book that marries elements from “The Prince and the Pauper,” Star Wars, and “The Lion in Winter”? Somaiya Daud has you covered.

Daud’s debut novel, Mirage, has the flair of an Arthurian drama, the lavish sensory detail of a Nizar Qabbani poem, and the sleek technical flair of a sci-fi series. It’s a striking combination which, on paper, shouldn’t work at all. Yet this audacious combination is so skillfully done that it’ll shock breath into your lungs.

In this Moroccan space fantasy, citizens of the planet Andala and her many moons suffer under the brutal control of space invaders. After the conquering Vath ruined their own planet and spread like a plague within the galaxy, they decimated the Andalaan nobility and installed a Vathek monarchy.

One night on the backwater moon of Cadiz, a young woman named Amani prepares to receive her daan, or ritual face tattoos that mark her as a treasured Andalaan adult. Each inked mark denotes ancestry, faith, and blessings from one’s parents. But this ceremony is cut short: Vathek drones break up the ritual and abduct Amani, without so much as a how-do-you-do to her terrified family.

Having been bundled onto a spaceship, Amani arrives on Andala and finds herself at the Vathek-occupied palace. There, she learns that she is nearly identical to the Vathek princess, Maram. She has been pressed into service as a body double and must learn to emulate the haughty, ruthless Maram at court events and official functions.

“I’d been brought to die in her place,” Amani realizes. Her survival, and that of her family, depends on becoming indistinguishable from the people she hates most. If she fails, her family will be murdered. But if she succeeds, she helps her captors thrive.

Hang on, you might be saying: how is it possible that an Andalaan farmer can so resemble a Vathek princess? They’re from two completely different planets. Ah, you see, there’s the rub. Princess Maram’s father is the vicious Vathek king, but her late mother was an Andalaan noble. Since she’s not “pure” Vath, Maram is universally loathed by Vath and Andalaan alike.

“I wondered, for a moment, how such a life might feel,” Amani thinks. “Isolated from everyone except the person you were meant to marry, and he a prisoner of the state in every way but name. Feared by your peers. Ignored by your father. Orphaned by your mother. For a brief moment, I felt something like pity. It died quickly.”

Maram tortures Amani, frankly. She’s a cruel, hateful girl with no close relationships, no love, no real friends – just a treaty-ordained Andalaan fiancé named Idris.

Keen-eyed Idris is the only one at court to suspect that Amani is not Maram, despite Amani’s convincing performance. Idris and Amani find themselves to be kindred spirits on opposite sides of the same tragedy. They’ve both been torn from their families and co-opted by the Vathek rulers.

“We lived in the world of the Vath, and their chains had tied him to Maram,” Amani says. “He was welded to her and the throne in the same way I was welded to her shadow.”

Once Idris calls her out on the scheme, the two realize they can help each other. They become friends, and something stronger begins to take root. Amani teaches him about the Andalaan heritage he lost as a young boy when the Vathek purge destroyed his family, and Idris teaches her how to survive in Maram’s world.

But the flush of clandestine romance, and the glitter and glamor of court, can’t mask the fact that this is a deadly game of duplicates and duplicity.

Outside the palace, a rebellion churns – Andalaan rebels seek to topple their Vathek subjugators, purportedly led by the legendary prophetess Massinia, now reborn. When the rebels discover Amani’s position, they ask her to become a spy within the palace. She’s already on a knife’s edge: will she endanger herself and her family further to possibly save their world?

Throughout “Mirage,” Amani transforms from a dreamy, innocent village girl into a calculating, unpredictable palace insider. She resembles the underground oasis on a desert moon that she visits with Idris. Outwardly, she appears dry, devoid of life, and forbidding to consider (in character as Maram), but within, she is vibrant, lush, and full of hope.

If you dig science fantasy, if courtly intrigues tickle your fancy, or if you loved “The Wrath and The Dawn” and “Children of Blood and Bone" – "Mirage” will captivate you. Stay tuned for book two.

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