The Mirage
By Matt Ruff

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Rating: Great Alternate Reality
3 Stars

First Published: 2012
Jacket Design by Oliver Munday
Pages: 414

Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Alternate History, Thriller, Mystery, Fantasy, Science Fiction



The Mirage is a fascinating thriller/mystery from Matt Ruff involving the fight against terrorism set in the present time with the world turned on its ear by an alternate history.  In this world, the Middle Eastern countries have united into a world superpower and the United States of America is fragmented into a number of third world countries.  Terrorism is just as much a problem as in the world we know except that it is reversed so that the predominantly Muslim superpower called the United Arab States is being terrorized by Christian fundamentalists from America.  The result is both strangely parallel and at the same time strikingly different from the world we all know.

The novel follows a close knit team of Homeland Security agents from Bagdad who are doing their utmost to track down cells of terrorists when they uncover baffling propaganda that claims the world they are living in is only a “mirage” and in the actual world America is a superpower while the Arab states are really “just a bunch of backward third-world countries”.  As they begin to track down the sources of this strange propaganda, they run into secret organizations and conspiracies that seem to be just as dangerous as the terrorist threats. 

Matt Ruff uses a clever imagination to create numerous elements within The Mirage that are twists on the same elements in the “real” world.  This includes everything from major world events to current world leaders to pop culture.  For example, the 9/11 terrorist attack against America is transformed into an 11/9 terrorist attack by Christian terrorists using airliners to destroy the trade center towers in Bagdad, killing thousands.  Similarly, Saddam Hussein becomes the leader of one of the most powerful criminal organizations and Osama Bin Laden is a war hero and the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee while the CIA stands for “Christian Intelligence Agency”.  In addition, what we know of as Wikipedia becomes “The Library of Alexandria” which is also an on-line user edited reference source.  A page or two from this reference is inserted between most chapters to describe background details about the alternate world such as a summary of the history of the United Arab States and the history of the alternate Osama Bin Laden.    

The early going of The Mirage demands substantial patience from the reader as the author takes the time to build up a solidly detailed alternate reality.  He mixes in a few scenes of action along with in-depth explanations of recent events and extensive background material on the main characters.  This makes the first third of the novel a bit slow going but the process of learning about this alternate world is always interesting.

While the alternate reality of The Mirage is highly intriguing in itself, what really makes this novel worthwhile is the excellent character development.  The main character is an Arab Homeland Security agent named Mustafa who is based in Bagdad.  He works closely with two other agents, one of whom is one of the few female members of law enforcement.  The three agents are complicated and realistic people who all have personal problems to deal with in addition to handling the challenges of a high stress job.  Extensive flashbacks highlight portions of their past that contributed to molding them into their current selves.  All three of the main characters are interesting and sympathetic. 

Mustafa is an everyman who is dedicated to his job, has issues with his marriages, and is having trouble coming to terms with his faith after the death of his wife from the 11/9 attack.  Amal is the female agent.  She would like to keep some distance from the shadow of her famous mother and she also has to deal with a connection to her first love that she thought was cut years ago.  The other agent, Samir, is a divorced father of two young kids who has a deep secret that leaves him vulnerable to the possibility of black mail.

Once the novel gets past the background development, the pacing and tension really picks up as the three homeland security agents get into the action of tracking down terrorists, gangsters, and the mysterious rumors of a different world.  This main part of the novel is highly entertaining as the agents find themselves encountering ever more dangerous situations as they draw closer to the solution to the main mystery.  The only aspect I wasn’t really satisfied with was the final explanation to the mystery.  However, this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the bulk of the novel.

I highly recommend The Mirage for an immersive dive into a different reality where the world is dominated by a Muslim superpower that is harassed by Christian terrorists.  It’s always interesting to read about a world that is vastly different than what one is accustomed to and this novel fills the bill nicely.