Review of The Mirage by Matt Ruff

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The Mirage

Matt Ruff (@bymattruff on the Twitter)

Here’s the author’s website, which contains a synopsis, a downloadable sample of the book, and links to buy it. I don’t have a local bookseller to pimp, so I’ll go with pimping the author’s site instead.

At the beginning of November, I was lucky enough to win a copy of Matt Ruff’s book The Mirage with the above tweet. Benjamin LeRoy of Tyrus Books (@TyrusBooks) held a parallel contest with Writer’s Digest. The idea was to write a story in 132 characters and the prize was any eBook I wanted. I love that my words earned me something. I figure the least I can do is write up a review for the book.

My least favorite part of writing a review for a book is giving a synopsis of the story. How much should I put in? If I am a fan of an author’s, in most cases I try not to even read the dust cover until I’m halfway through the book. You can’t always do that, but if you know an author’s voice is pleasing to you or it’s a series that you’ve read for years, it can be fun to just relax and let the story unveil itself to you with no expectations.

Matt Ruff is an author that I will read, sight unseen, because I know he’ll weave an interesting, unexpected tale. When I read his novel Bad Monkeys, all I knew about the book was my wife said, “Read this book.” I knew a little more about this one going in; it received a lot of buzz when it came out. It’s about the 9/11 attacks, but in an alternate way: the story takes place in a world where the dominant superpower in the world is the United Arab States. On November 9, 2001, terrorists from the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories hijack planes and fly them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in downtown Baghdad. North America, in this world, is a fractured group of independent nations that include a much smaller Christian States of America. The governments are all theocracies to various degrees. Eight years after the attacks, we follow three Homeland Security agents as they investigate a claim among the Christian terrorists that the world is a mirage and that the “real” world is one where America is the superpower.

This book made me wish I knew more about Middle Eastern history. I am more informed on it than most of my neighbors, but it’s not been an area I’ve ever read up on extensively. I honestly would love to discuss this book with someone who was well versed in the history and geography of the region, if only to see what countries from our Middle East parallel with Ruff’s America. As a matter of fact, if I could ask Mr. Ruff one question about his process it would be: Did you divide North America with a picture of the Middle East in mind, or was it just how you pictured our country would be divided if history flipped the script?

For the record, I really enjoyed this book. I haven’t read a lot of alternate history, so I can’t judge it by its predecessors. Ruff gives us all the history lessons we need by starting scenes out with “Library of Alexandria” articles about foreshadowing subjects. Anytime an author needs to explain a part of his world there is going to be a slowing of the narrative, so I thought the Wikipedia-style articles worked and kept the characters from having to do anything unnecessary just so they’d be available for exposition. (“He looked over at the park, that he randomly decided to walk past today for no reason. It was there he stood when he learned about the founding fathers and how they invented cherry cobbler by the sweat of their brow.”) It would have been difficult for him, as well, to justify his character’s motivations without the world building that those articles allow for. Societal pressures play an important role in creating tension throughout, and since these pressures are (to some degree) different than our own it is necessary to explain it.

Even with that world building, however, some of his minor characters’ motivations seemed too convenient to the plot. Many of the political figures from the Bush administration and a few of the important men from the Arab world make appearances, and some are used better than others. Perhaps it’s my own politics and prejudices, but some of the political characters seem to be in the book just for the sake of being in the book and moving the plot along. And hardcore Republicans would probably balk at the light some of the Bush administration officials are shown in (though I personally have a hard time believing that there are a lot of hardcore Republicans who would be interested in a novel that is sympathetic to Arabs or Muslims.). But that’s not to say it wasn’t interesting seeing these historical figures appear. Again, my own politics and prejudices are at play here. (In case you’re wondering I think most of the Bush Administration figures mentioned are cowards who wouldn’t last three minutes without their creature comforts. All the more reason to take this paragraph with a grain of bath salts.)

I especially had trouble with a character that shows up near the end, one that is pretty important to the plot. I asked myself “Why?” for most of the ending, and it felt slightly unresolved for me when it was all said and done. And this wasn’t a nit picky question like “Is the Klingon homeworld from The Next Generation a different one than the one from the Original Series because of Star Trek VI?” This is THE QUESTION on which the book’s plot swings. BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO TAP DANCE AROUND IT FOR ANOTHER PARAGRAPH THIS IS SLIGHTLY A SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT REALLY CAUSE IT’S STILL REALLY VAGUE. Why would someone who isn’t a traitor want things to be as different as they are? I felt like I needed to know more about why this character wanted things to be the way they are. We learn in pretty comprehensive detail the motivations of everyone else in the book, just not this particular, important character. We learn the “How did this all happen” but not the “Why would he choose this” of the events. It feels like a door is left open and a draft is running through an otherwise warm house. THIS IS NO LONGER A SPOILER ALERT EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T MUCH OF A SPOILER AND WHY AM I WRITING LIKE THIS?

None of these issues I had were deal breakers. The plot moves along quickly and the writing is engrossing. Ruff can set a scene like a ninja working the wings of a Broadway play. The tension ratchets up to a spectacular finish. This book is smart, fun fantasy. Ruff managed to write a book that shows not just two sides of the political coin, but of the religious one as well. Where the characters may wobble a little, they play out the drama in a way that shows that there are two sides to everything. America, Islam, Christianity, and the Middle East are shown to be as multifaceted in this novel as they are in real life. I am looking forward to rereading the book after having seen the journey the characters go on, and that alone makes it worth owning.

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About wombatdeamor
I am a writer who has yet to be published. I am using this blog to shame myself into writing more regularly, in the hopes that I will be able to improve the "About Yourself" box to something less awkward. I also like to cook and use profanity.

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