I don’t read a lot of sci-fi books, ok so maybe I haven’t really ever read one…or maybe a few have snuck through and then been forgotten. So, I was excited to read this book by a Muslim author with Arabic poetry and Moroccan inspired backdrop sprinkled in, if nothing else it had me intrigued. The book is a 308 page YA book that came out two months ago and was available in both hardback and on audio at my public library. I was thinking to listen to the audio version with my kids, but the book was ready first, and the reviews on the back cover by other authors, all mentioned that the book was “romantic” and “sexy,” huh? The synopsis online and even on the inside flap, hinted much more at rebellions and body doubles, and life on a small moon in a distant fictional galaxy. Needless to say I didn’t check out the audio book and decided I should proof it for my self first. I started the book, no less than five times. Like I said, it isn’t a familiar genre and I was a little confused. I decided to just keep plugging through the fifth time, and sure enough when my eyes started to get sleepy I realized I was more than half way done with the book. I guess when you are building worlds and culture you have to start somewhere and the confusion worked itself out after that. I’d say the book is for teens. The romance isn’t explicit, save some kissing, but a lot is implied and better for kids a little older than middle school.
Amani is turning 18 and about to attend her majority ceremony, where her cultural daan, facial tattoos will be marked on her face. Surrounded by her loving family of parents and two older brothers, and close friends, drones from the main planet attack the festivities and kidnap Amani to the palace that the Vathek empire has taken over after conquering the planet and two moons. The storyline is pretty straightforward, the confusion for me was the world building of establishing the culture, the religion, the symbols and characters all intertwined at the start. The understanding of what life was like before the occupation and now under Vath rule, about the tribes, the birds, and how so much has changed.
Once Amani is enslaved in the palace and had her near identical features to the princess, surgically made to match the ruthless half Vathek, half Andalaan ruler, the setting is developed through stories and flashbacks that clear up the confusion and make the book a fast and fairly easy read. As the princess’ body double Amani must learn to act and carry herself as Princess Maram so as to not be discovered when sent in to complete tasks that would put the real princess in danger. The job of Amani, however, also develops in to her filling in for Maram, whenever the spoiled princess, doesn’t want to do things. In the process of these engagements, Amani spends a lot of time with Maram’s fiance, Idris, who is Kushaila and as part of the war truce betrothed to Maram. Maram and Idris are friends, who understand their roles, but when Idris figures out Amani is playing a role as well, the two of them fall in love, complicating matters considerably. Throw in some Andalaan cousins, forced to the outskirts under the new rulers, a royal half-sister vying for the crown, and a rebel who looks like a beloved Prophetess recruiting Amani to join them as a spy, and you have a protagonist trying to stay alive while following her conscious as well.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that the world created seems plausible and real. I love that I was engaged and intrigued and able to finish the book (yay!), but ultimately the book reads more like a romance book, than a sci-fi one. Aside from the planet, droids, holograms, and modes of transport, it could be any culture and religion even here on Earth being fleshed out and established as the back drop for the story. I love that Amani holds to her culture and the love she feels for her people, their language, poetry, and their history is palpable and descriptive.
I love that society is focused so much on the strength of women. Yes Maram’s dad is the evil overlord, but she is the future. Amani is the protagonist, it is her mom’s strength that she calls on so often in her trials and torture. The Prophetess that delivers hope is a female, that the poetry comes from women, and is gifted by women. I love that the leaders of the rebellion are women, that the cousin that has not given up on the true bloodline of rulers is female and that the Dowager is such a strong, yet loving beacon that deserves the truth about Amani’s identity. At one point, when presenting herself as Maram to Idris’s aunt, the two have a conversation:
“You must eat more,” she says in heavily accented Vathekaar. “If you are to be any good at bearing daughters.”
“Only your daughters will have the stomach for the future,” she said. “It is why your mother had you.”
I don’t really like the love story between Amani and Idris, it seems too easy, even though obviously it is plagued with impossibility, there should have been more tension. Maybe it isn’t even the relationship, but more that Idris isn’t nearly as developed as Amani and Maram, and it shows. I’m hoping there will be more books in the series and that he will be given some depth, because a lot is told about him, but the authenticity seems lacking. The disjointedness of the romance could also be the pacing of the book. I felt like somethings dragged and climaxes seemed rushed. Again, I’m hoping this is more setting the stage for further adventures, and that the next book will delve more in to the political-warring-rebel story line that the author definitely can delve in to and capitalize on along with Amani and Maram’s relationship.
Maram is my favorite character, how delicious that the antagonist is not one, or even two dimensional. She is cruel, and scared, and vulnerable and everything in between. I loved the interactions between the two young women. I wanted to know more from Maram, how she felt about, well, everything, and I’m really hoping holding back on those insights was intentional for a purpose. While she evokes both hatred and pity from Amani, she evokes so much curiosity and exasperation from the reader it is refreshing.
There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own fictionalized religion, and religious texts. The names are familiar to the Muslim world, and arabic words sprinkled in with no definition, definitely will make Arabic aware children feel a connection to the characters and setting of the book.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think one could do this as a book club book for high school aged students. And while I dislike labeling books for one gender or another and all the stereotypical tropes that that implies, I feel like because of all the romance and the amount of time spent on Amani and Idris the book might appeal more to girls. The book spends a lot of time on these two as it is their talking that creates understanding of their world for the reader. It is more telling than showing, and these two snuggled up or caressing each others faces is the manner in which the information seems to be expressed. I’m holding out hope that the rest of the series will break away from this set up.
author’s website: http://www.somaiyabooks.com/
article with excerpts: https://ew.com/books/2018/02/19/mirage-somaiya-daud-preview/
There is kissing and affection. There is also some violences broadly as the Andalaan’s are tortured and attacked and specifically, as Amani has a bird sent to attack her, and she is regularly hit and beaten. Nothing too extreme for high schoolers.