Quick confession—I fell in love with Libbie Hawker’s writing in the last six months when binge reading all her other books, so I had astronomically high expectations for ‘Daughter of Sand and Stone’. The premise was intriguing: a biographical novel about Empress Zenobia, a woman who dared to challenge the mighty Roman Empire during the third century.
As usual, I found Hawker’s writing to be very atmospheric. There were many metaphors and similes—some people may find them excessive—but I believe that she handled them well enough and it helped paint a picture of the setting. I was in the desert during the night on a high-stakes chase, I was locked up the palace, and I was in Alexandria seeking for the future. Essentially, I was transported back in the third century.
Zenobia was no pushover—in fact, she was the opposite. Very ambitious from the beginning, Zenobia questioned why she must be a woman who listened to men, got married, and breed babies like a machine. In fact, her ambitions grew after being told by her mother and her sisters that she must stick to her station as a woman. She also did not apologize for her transparent ambition throughout the book, even when it blinded her to various obvious warning signs regarding her personal life and her reign. I always find it refreshing to have a character who openly admits their ambition and while I don’t always agree with her choices, I can see the rationale behind her thinking. Another refreshing thing was that the powerful male characters—her husband Odaenathus, her nemesis Aurelian, and her general/friend Zabdas—all respected her and respected women in varying degrees. These males weren’t handing out woman’s rights, but they were smart enough to realize that all female individuals could be powerful players in their own right and could make a difference.
Another wonderful element was that Zenobia had worthy rivals—you know how some books will dumb down all other characters to make the protagonist look super smart and extra special? Well, not in ‘Daughters of Sand and Stone’. While the Romans didn’t appear until the latter half of the book, they were always an ominous threat throughout the book, reminding Zenobia that her journey was dangerous. Aurelian in particular was a fascinating opponent; when he and Zenobia were exchanging polite letters you could always feel the undercurrent and antagonism between the two individuals. I rather adored this frenemy mostly enemy relationship between the two of them.
I lament the length of the book since many of the issues I had could have been resolved with a longer book that allowed for further development. At 328 pages, it attempted and failed at exploring Zenobia’s fascinating life. I personally felt like it could have been at least a 100-150 pages longer. There were large gaps in Zenobia’s life that were told and not shown due to page constraints. The book was divided in the following sections: Zenobia as an ambitious girl, Zenobia as a wife, Zenobia who desired to become an empress, and then Zenobia the empress with her crumbling empire. One of the most important parts—how she reached her goal as an empress and reigned over a considerable amount of land—was virtually non-existent and was only recapped using a page.
While the Zenobia and other major players were developed characters themselves, I found Zenobia’s relationships with people in her life were not as fleshed out as I wanted. A major one that was lacking was her relationship with her son. In the book he rarely appeared or was only mentioned in a sentence to ensure the readers knew about this fact in Zenobia’s life. Suddenly out of the blue though, Hawker depicted her son as the most important person in Zenobia’s life, and all her decisions made afterwards were based on this very deep, crucial and vital bond that this reader had no recollection of. Historically Zenobia’s decisions may had been influenced due to her son, but in the book it just felt awkward since there was almost no indication that Zenobia cared about him that much. This is just one example and there were other underdeveloped relationships that would have made the story richer.
In contrast, the only properly developed relationship was one that was unnecessary and fictional. Reading the author’s notes Hawker stated she made up the relationship between Zenobia and Zabdas. Normally, I’m fine with fictional relationships or elevating the relationship to a new level if it was plausible. However, by doing this she took away precious development with “real” relationships that made a huge difference in the story (Zenobia and her son). While the fictional Zenobia/Zabdas relationship was interesting to read about it was not necessary for Hawker to have altered it, since she still could have told the story about Zenobia’s spectacular rise and fall with the historical relationship that these two individuals had.
Overall I still enjoyed reading the novel, but there were so much more potential that was unfulfilled.