Synopsis of Somaiya Daud’s Mirage:
Amani lives in the Vathek empire on a moon that orbits the planet Andala. Her home suffers under the brutal rule of the Vath—colonisers who have oppressed her people in their attempt to broaden their empire. Amani finds solace in forbidden Kushaila poetry and stories of the brave and fierce Massinia, prophetess of Dihya. But when Vathek drones capture her in a single-minded search, she is torn from her family and the life she knows. She is brought to the Vathek capital and trained to be a body double for the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram because, by a cruel twist of fate, they look identical. As Amani and Maram are forced to learn more about each other, they realise how their lives have both been affected by the Vath’s merciless rule. And as Amani grows every closer to Maram’s fiancé Idris, her own fire of rebellion is ignited.
Like fantasy, sci-fi has a long history of drawing on Western culture and being filled with all-white casts. What has always left a sour taste in my mouth about sci-fi—and perhaps the reason the genre has never resonated with many—is its reinforcement of colonial themes, its underlying fear of “the alien” or the other, and its centring of Western culture and whiteness. Something about sci-fi often feels clinical, detached, and completely foreign. This is absolutely not the case with Mirage.
In this captivating novel, the author draws on her own Moroccan culture to breathe new life and warmth into the sci-fi genre. The reader is blown away by how her characters and world confront colonisation and its ramifications with nuance and complexity.
AMANI, BORN INTO OPPRESSION
Amani has only ever known life under Vathek rule. Her people are attacked and oppressed. In the first chapter alone, we see their crops burned, their language forbidden, their lives poisoned by fear.
Through Amani, we experience the lasting effects of colonisation and the ongoing trauma that passes through families. Her parents experienced the Vath’s violent invasion and carry that trauma in silence.
Our souls will return home, we will return, the first poem read. We will set our feet in the rose of the citadel.
The pain on the page was palpable—everyone had a citadel. The city of their birth, turned to rubble, family long gone, buried in an unmarked grave, all of it unreachable except through death. (Daud, 2018, p.15)
Amani feels a deep connection with Massinite poetry—which Somaiya Daud transplanted from the real world using Andalusian poetry she translated with her mother—and her faith. These things help Amani connect to her culture and what the Vath have stolen. Her arc, as she decides what she is willing to risk to help free her people, is quiet but powerful.
In contrast, the other characters have vastly different experiences of the Vath’s rule. Through them, we see the insidious and pervasive nature of colonisation.
MARAM, DAUGHTER OF NONE
Princess Maram is arguably the most interesting and complex character in the novel. She is introduced as cruel and violent, so much so that she is at risk from rebel attacks whenever she is in public. But the great irony is that Maram herself is half-Vathek, half-Andalaan.
Though her father married the Andalaan queen to secure control over the planet he invaded, Maram has no connection to her Andalaan ancestry. Instead, she has been taught to hate her dark skin—a marker that is seen as inferior to the alien race of the Vath. She viciously rejects her Andalaan culture to appease her father and Vathek society.
“You know exactly where you belong. You have your family, and your traditions, and no one is…is screaming at you to be something else. All my Vathek family can see is my lesser blood. And all my Andalaan family can see are their conquerors.” (Daud, 2018, p.189)
On that note, it is brilliant how Daud flips the trope of “the alien” in sci-fi to apply to white colonisers. The Vath are a chilling threat, a reflection of our real history of colonisation and its legacies of harm generations on.
I felt a deep resonance with Maram’s character. I am Anglo-Indian—my existence is a legacy of British colonisers marrying Indians. I struggle with what this means. I struggle with reconciling my identity with a legacy of colonisation.
Though it is a distant legacy, colonisation and intermarrying have had persistent effects on the Anglo-Indian community. We prize our whiteness, our British blood, even as we are cut off from mainstream Indian society as a minority. What I dub our ingrained “superiority-inferiority complex” (this is a huge simplification) manifests in disturbing beliefs—for example, that lighter skin is more beautiful and desirable, and that we are more “educated” or “cultured” than other Indians.
IDRIS, FORCED TO COMPLY
While Amani’s relationship with Maram complicates her view on the Vathek conquerors, her growing romance with Idris opens her eyes to how class does not protect you from oppression. Idris has lived a vastly different life to Amani, owing to his status as one of the old Andalaan royal families, but he has still suffered under Vath rule.
His parents were killed in the Vath’s invasion, along with the rest of the older generation of royals. But he has been made to reject his Andalaan culture, made to forget his mother language, and forced to comply and assimilate. Like many of the young royals allowed to live while their parents were slaughtered, his life is contingent on assimilation.
I didn’t ask if he could read Kushaila. It was becoming abundantly clear that while the lower classes had suffered beneath the occupation, the royal families had suffered a different kind of cruelty.
I knew what I would want. A piece of myself, of my family, back. A taste, no matter how bitter, was better than knowing that a piece of you was missing and having no way to fill it. (Daud, 2018, p.108)
Through Amani’s eyes, we see not only her own suffering, but the suffering of all people under a colonial oppressor. No one is safe.
This book reflects the real world. In India, which only gained independence from Britain in 1947, British colonisers starved and oppressed Indians by the millions to make a profit. In Australia, the British violently stole the land from Aboriginal Australians through mass genocide and other atrocities. The effects of colonisation are still present in Australia today. One example is the mass incarceration and deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; another is the long-lasting trauma of the Stolen Generations.
Somaiya Daud created this story to consciously write back against colonialism and the centring of whiteness. She discusses this, as well as Andalusian poetry and her other inspirations and reasons for writing Mirage, in a brilliant and in-depth YouTube interview. She points to the “unacknowledged racism” in the frustrating assumption that futuristic worlds cannot include minority cultures and be believable.
While the book isn’t perfect on a craft level—I felt the short chapters created a weirdly staccato pacing and that there was a lack of action—its themes and worldbuilding are what make it so brilliant. It also has a clear feminist stance, seen in Amani’s strength through compassion and how she draws fierceness from the legacy of women before her, including the prophetess Massinia.
More and more, the YA genre is portraying heroines who are strong not because they can wield a sword or execute a perfect roundhouse kick, but because they are kind and generous, emotionally perceptive and nurturing. And I am loving our changing view that traditional femininity can be a strength.
Daud lays the groundwork to further explore her three main characters in the rest of the series and their complex relationships with each other. As soon as I can, I am getting my hands on the sequel Court of Lions.
Mirage is a powerful feat of a novel, thrumming with the lifeblood of its necessary themes and its complex characters. It is a reclamation in a genre that has long prized whiteness at the expense of other cultures. It is full of warmth and life, despair and hope, and I am ecstatic that it exists. It’s about damn time that a novel like this injected new discourse into the world of genre fiction. Put simply, Mirage is the bleeding, beating heart that has been missing in sci-fi for so long.
More about Somaiya Daud and her works can be found on her website.
Amanda Thomas is a creative writing student. She works in a library, where she can be surrounded by the magical smell of paper and ink. Her favourite places to visit are fantasy worlds with faeries, mermaids, or witches. She writes poetry on Instagram at amandathepoetess and blogs about books at steepingstories.wordpress.com.