Captured in the Twilight Wood, Faris and Farah go on a page-turning adventure while taking part in a long-awaited uprising against evil:
By Nada Hegazy
Al-Mir’āt-ul-Mahjūra (The Marooned Mirror) by Egyptian YA and SFF author Ahmad Salah al-Mahdi is a door into a different world. It takes the characters out of their carefree life and challenges them to develop their consciousness and capacities. Through the course of the story, the Marooned Mirror attracts angels and demons alike.
The story opens as a family heads out on a comfortable road trip back to a rural village to spend a summer holiday away from city life. Everything seems tame enough, and the scenes shift between green fields, home-grown products, and delicious food served to the newcomers at the summer home, while the children listen to folktales. But soon Faris and Farah come across an abandoned house, and childish curiosity lures Faris into exploring it, in spite of the warnings from his twin sister and ominous tales told by Umm Hassan. Drawn in by the captivating blue light of the marooned mirror, Faris disappears, forcing Farah to set her fear and anger aside and follow him, in order to bring her brother back home from the world behind the enchanted glass.
When she arrives in the wood on the other side, Farah opens her eyes to meet Simon, a talking squirrel, and his sister Simona—both of whom are compassionate enough to offer her food and shelter, both of whom agree to help Farah free her brother from Murjana’s castle prison. Throughout her dangerous journey, Farah encounters other talking animals, angry spirits seeking revenge, wicked trolls and ogres, as well as Reema, the beautiful tiny creature known as the Well Fairy, and the Wood Protector. Both of them were stripped of their magical powers by the malicious magician Murjana.
As events unfold, Farah learns how the evil sorcerer uses deception and black magic to control sections of the Twilight Wood, consuming its magic until it vanishes—and then she moves to another place to deplete its resources. In so doing, she casts evil spells on the residents, turning every source of joyful magic into evil and inciting division among the animals.
Although in the beginning Farah is driven by her desire to save her brother, she later agrees to help the Protector and embarks on a perilous path until she faces Murjana, who wishes to get rid of this annoying earth-bound creature by trickery and bribery. Ultimately, Farah apprehends her wicked intentions and turns an offer to return home with her brother into a way to help the Wood regain its independence and its magic.
Though the story is intended for children, with its simple colourful language and fairy-tale content, the story is also about breaking the myth of fated defeat, while drawing the reader’s attention to the latent powers that, if nourished, may transcend magic. The story is thus interesting to older readers, as there are political undertones that hint at the inevitability of revolt against repression. After their long adventure, as in CS Lewis’s The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Farah and Faris return home to discover that they have been absent only a few hours, a note that suggests that our mortal life is short, but that there are other worlds.
An Excerpt from The Marooned Mirror
The Blue Deer
Farah kept turning to look behind her, but she saw nothing in the dark. She’d been hoping to see Simon, but he hadn’t shown up. She was already missing him as she trudged through the chill, darkened wood until she reached the flat meadow beyond. The scene before her wasn’t pleasant, as it had seemed during the day. Now, it seemed like an open trap—the trolls and ogres could easily spot her once she stepped out from the tangle of trees. She stood still for a while, gazing through the dark at the Hill of Angry Spirits, while letting her gaze dart around until she grew tired of waiting. Then she took a deep breath and set out toward the Hill.
When Farah reached the hillside safe and sound, she heaved a sigh of relief. Then she started to scale its face, but this was not an easy task, as the hill was both steep and slippery. Yet she went on struggling her way up the hill until, finally, her feet reached a plateau. She lay down to catch her breath and thought of Simon. She had gotten used to his company over the last two days, and his disappearance had left her lonely and weary. Then the memory of her brother Faris flashed into her mind, and she was filled with anger. This mess would never have happened if he hadn’t gone into that abandoned house.
Still, she was worried about her brother, and she wished she could find and save him—but she felt helpless without Simon. Farah was confused. Should she wait until the next morning and then return to the underground burrow, where she would tell Simona everything, so that Simona could ask for the other animals’ help? But as she gazed down from the hilltop at the vast black wood, full of intertwined trees, she wondered whether she really could find her way back. It felt like she would be looking for a needle in a haystack. Despair crept into her heart.
Farah turned around, contemplating the twisting trees that shrouded the hilltop. They looked like the other trees in the wood, except they had been deserted by birds and animals, and their resounding silence alarmed her. She wished for just the slightest sound to ease her loneliness and, suddenly, a breeze sliced through the leaves, and she clearly heard their rustle. Farah braced herself as she studied the area around her. Well, waiting was a waste of time—so she decided to explore the place, hoping to find Simon on her way.
And so she started, cautiously, to walk through the trees, glancing around at the slightest movement or sound. After she had walked for a while, she started to lose her sense of direction, feeling that she was moving in cruel circles. Eventually, she surrendered, sitting breathless on a dry, ancient tree trunk and burying her face in her palms, giving in to tears. After a while, she had the uncanny feeling that she was being watched, so she called out: “Who’s there?”
There was nothing but silence, so she said, fearful, “Simon! Is that you? Are you playing a trick on me?”
Farah’s gaze darted around her. The place was dark and silent, but she sensed a light blue fog slipping through the trees; she was uncertain whether this was real or maybe a flight of fancy. She froze in place until she could clearly hear the rattle coming through the trees. With a trembling voice, she echoed:
There was no human answer, but the sound grew closer. She caught sight of a strange light in the darkness, and then three glowing foggy shapes emerged from the trees, circling rapidly around her, like a swirl of light. And from the very heart of this arose a deep voice:
“Did our enemies dare to disturb us again?”
Farah fell silent. The movement of the three foggy shapes slowed, and she saw that they looked like transparent birds flapping their wings around her. They looked like birds of prey—three falcons encircling her body like a necklace.
“Who are you?” she asked, fearful.
Suddenly, their shapes began to change form, shifting into misty humans.
The deep voice of one boomed: “We cannot recall who we are, but we seek revenge.”
“You do not resemble our enemies,” another said.
“What a strange feeling,” the third said. “It is as though an ancient memory has resurfaced. You remind me of something from the distant past. A long time has passed—so long that we forgot who we are and what we want—and only rage and revenge motivate us. But now I have a different feeling.” This third one approached Farah, scrutinizing her.
She felt the mist that had gathered around her taking the form of a blue deer, and its extraordinary shadow fell upon them all. In a moment, the foggy shapes re-took their falcon shape and flew away, fading behind the trees. Farah was astounded on seeing the beautiful blue deer approaching her, and, instead of fear, she felt a sense of overwhelming familiarity, peacefulness, and warmth. She wanted to reach out and touch him, but her hands went right through the thick blue mist, adding to her astonishment.
The deer turned swiftly and began to walk away.
“Hey,” Farah cried. “Wait!”
The deer stopped and turned.
“Where are you going?”
The deer gave no answer, but he turned around and went on his way. Farah sensed that, for some reason, the deer wanted her to follow him. She hesitated for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders in surrender and followed, not knowing where they were heading, yet feeling she had no choice. She had no idea why she felt safe in the deer’s presence. The blue mist stopped right in front of an isolated tree, alone in an empty patch. It was a massive, majestic oak with bushy branches. Farah was puzzled, especially when the deer turned back into a hazy fog before vanishing into the air.
“Wait!” she cried, afraid.
But, with a gust of wind, the deer disappeared completely, and there was nothing left but a blue mist around the oak tree’s trunk, which gradually flowed into the tree, as if it were being absorbed. It left left no trace. The next moment, the strangest thing yet happened, as Farah witnessed something that she never could have expected: The tree spoke to her.
Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi is an Egyptian author, translator, and literary critic who specializes in fantasy, science fiction and children and YA’s literature.
Nada Hegazy is a researcher and a freelance translator. She received her PhD from the Faculty of al-Alsun, Ain Shams University and has been teaching there since 2005. She has been the editor of Palestine Festival of Literature Anthology since 2012 and the head of its translation team. She is also the author of Dunia w Dar (Home and Heaven), a book of poetry and short stories published in 2020.