EW talks YA: Moroccan fantasy Mirage and feminist pirate saga Seafire are must-reads

EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations of the biggest new YA titles. To kick off September, we’re discussing feminist pirate sagas, Moroccan-inspired fantasies, and a few more hyped reads from the past month. Check out our new roundup below, and in case you missed August’s, read it here

August’s Top Pick: Mirage, by Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud’s superb debut Mirage takes place in a distant galaxy where, on the eve of her coming-of-age ceremony, 18-year-old Amani is kidnapped by the Vath, ruthless conquerors occupying her home planet of Cadiz. Amani’s people are the Kushalia, a tribe of the Andalaan people, and they’ve come to expect brutality from the Vath. But this kidnapping was not a random act of violence. Amani is abducted for her striking resemblance to Vathek Princess Matham, whose cruel ways have made her enough enemies to warrant a body-double.

Amina’s life depends on her ability to mimic Matham, who is half-Andalaan. But the princess’ cold, entitled demeanor is hard for Amina, a farmer’s daughter from a small village, to imitate. She struggles to adapt to her new world, her only ally being Tala, a servant of Matham’s who saves the poetry Amani was given by her family the night of her kidnapping.

The poems, which Daud translated from Arabic, remind Amina of the rich culture she left behind. As she says, “Every Kushalia is a poet. Poetry is our way.” The Kushalia culture is also defined by survival. Amina’s mother has survived the horrors of occupation far longer than her daughter, and Amina is in awe of her courage and strength. It’s through these poems that Amina, far from home, is reminded that survival is in her blood.

The novel’s galaxy also mirrors some of Morocco’s history, where Daud’s family is from. The politics of the fictional world underscore the horrors of colonialism; at one point Amani’s tribal tattoos are lasered off her face. Plus, the absurd justifications for Cadiz’s occupation are emphasized by Matham’s own mixed background. Her hatred for the people reads as an elaborate self-hatred, or hatred for the way her mother’s Andalaan heritage puts her at a disadvantage in her pedigree-obsessed royal family.

Even within this rich political metaphor, the novel functions as a refreshing and unique coming-of-age story. In the bleak conditions of the world, there’s still romance between Amina and Matham’s impossibly handsome and charming Kushalia fiancé, Idris. While there’s no simple solution for the crims of colonialism, Amina’s determination to survive is what defines the novel. And the way she uses her heritage to facilitate that survival makes Mirage a beautiful and necessary meditation on finding strength in one’s culture. —Esme Douglas

Grade: A- 

Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram

It’s a good thing that Darius the Great is not okay— for readers, at least.

Adib Khorram’s refreshing first novel follows Darioush Kellner — Americanized as Darius, mocked as D-Bag, and discriminated as Terrorist — a Persian-American high schooler living in suburban Portland. Reminiscent of Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda (better known in movie form as Love, Simon) and Angie Thomas’ phenomenal The Hate U Give, the novel chronicles a politically aware teendom where microaggressions are as much an everyday obstacle as untamed acne and humdrum mall jobs.

A tea enthusiast, Darius is a salesman at the Teavana-like Tea Haven, but that’s about all the half-Persian, half-white kid can put under extracurriculars for his college application. He isn’t self-effacing; he’s numb, and it’s not because of the depression medication he and his former-jock father, Stephen (a.k.a “The Ubermensch”) both take. Darius, a welcome counter to narrow, oft-belittled Generation Z characterizations, is passing through high school with sincerity but little attention and few allies.

Darius’ life is jolted when his mother announces the whole family is going to meet and say goodbye to their ailing grandfather, with whom they’ve only ever conversed via Skype, in the ancestral Persian city of Yazd (located today in Iran). There, Darius addresses his insecurities of not being Persian enough — he doesn’t speak Farsi like his little sister, Laleh — nor fully American. He also meets his soon-to-be (and first-ever) best friend in Sohrab, his grandparents’ affectionate, athletic boy neighbor. With few explainers and copious, artful descriptions, Khorram allows his layered characters to be fully present. Darius isn’t a tour guide watering down Persian culture for American readers. He’s not always in the know.

It’s when Khorram falls prey to doubling-down on writing for a young-adult audience that the books struggles. Darius pushes off any emotional connection with repeated self-censoring phrasing. In response to Sohrab’s friendly affirmations after a soccer match in which Darius proves unexpectedly skillful, he “almost smiled. Almost.” The tongue-in-cheek attempt at youthful ostentation dilutes the intense, revelatory weight of a budding male friendship where outward affection and athletic ability can coexist.

Khorram respectfully honors the often-ignored yet ubiquitous American experience of living between two cultures, where Darius’ Persian upbringing is quarantined stateside while delightfully exuberant in his ancestral homeland. He treats a Portland celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as routinely as St. Patrick’s Day or Passover Seder. That in itself lends the book intrigue. Darius the Great Is Not Okay will have you craving a freshly steeped tea, an episode of Star Trek, and a glass of faloodeh — all courtesy of one delightful package. —Joe Longo

Grade: A-

Heretics Anonymous, by Katie Henry

Heretics Anonymous hits all the right beats. First-time author Katie Henry has crafted a thoughtful, refreshing story that expects more from its characters, and in turn, its reader, convincingly making an argument for tolerance and empathy.

Michael is used to moving; he’s not, however, used to attending a Catholic private school. His disdain for wearing a uniform and inability to properly demonstrate the sign of the cross offer early moments of hilarity. But the funniest bit is that Michael is an atheist — an affirmed non-believer in everything from God to Santa Claus to the misconception that combining Pop Rocks and soda can make your head explode.

When he meets Lucy, a fellow student at St. Clare’s and a fierce Catholic, along with her religiously diverse group of friends, he feels validated in his beliefs. This ragtag group of outcasts is reminiscent of The Breakfast Club gang if you replace the jock, the princess, and the nerd with an atheist, a Catholic, and a Jew (oh, and a pagan, and a Unitarian). This modern take on high school is rendered wholly original. They’re diverse racially and in sexual orientation, but it’s the variety of religions which feels freshest, scarcely explored as it is in YA fiction.

From the very first page, Michael is a protagonist easy to connect with. He makes the reader laugh, but more importantly, he’s entirely human. He has a strained relationship with his father, a big ego, an endless supply of humor and sarcasm — and he makes mistakes. A lot of mistakes, in fact: He puts his foot in his mouth on a daily basis and shows off his beliefs in a destructive way.

But through these flaws, Henry develops an authentic teenager easy to connect with. Heretics Anonymous examines faith and diversity side-by-side. In a time when it can seem like tolerance is at an all-time low, this novel, with its characters of various beliefs and worldviews befriending one another, provides a potent reminder of how different perspectives can coexist peacefully. —Aja Hoggatt

Grade: B+

Seafire, by Natalie C. Parker

Here’s the feminist pirate story you never knew you needed. Seafire, the debut novel from Natalie C. Parker, kicks off an exciting new trilogy with futuristic style. The action takes place on the Mors Navis, the all-female ship commandeered by Caledonia Styx, a headstrong young woman reeling from loss and intent on taking down the corrupt army quickly coming to rule the seas — the Bullets. The Mors Navis once belonged to Caledonia’s mother, who died along with the rest of its inhabitants — save Caledonia and her best friend Pisces — when a Bullet infiltrated their ranks and killed mercilessly.

For better and worse, the prologue — which lays out Caledonia’s backstory — is Seafire’s best section, an emotionally charged and thoroughly devastating chain of events, realized by Parker in beautiful, unsparing detail. It sets up a novel exploring the power and resilience of female friendship and delineates a compelling battle of the sexes which gradually proves nuanced.

Parker, the daughter of a Navy doctor, writes about life on the sea with immersive specificity, and she has a gift for endearing characterizations that don’t turn too cheeky. The gender politicking is sharp and timely without feeling didactic. Indeed, this author showcases a fresh voice, a unique setting, and a narrative with enough juice to allow the book to succeed without adhering to certain conventions. And so an uninspired romantic subplot and a somewhat middling cliffhanger, aren’t enough to detract from Seafire’s many pleasures and strengths. They just leave you hoping that Parker’s ready to take a few more risks in Book Two. —David Canfield

Grade: B+

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