Hawker brings us the timely story of Zenobia, an ancient queen of Palmyra, the beautiful ruins of which city ISIS recently destroyed. After that wanton smashing of the iconic columns and other structures, it is all the more poignant to read this vivid and lush telling of the rise of Palmyra’s most famous woman, perhaps Palmyra’s most famous person of either gender.
This is definitely a book about a woman who rises above the expectations of her world and breaks the limits of power and action that would normally bind her. Some of this tradition is legendary, some historical, but Hawker has done an excellent job of bringing us a compelling story that stays within the historical realities and constructs the gaps in a plausible way founded in the evidence. This is both the tale of a determined woman who rises to a throne through courage and intelligence, and an unconventional love story that deeply engages the reader’s emotions.
One of the great strengths of Hawker’s novel is its rich, descriptive language. She brings alive this exotic setting and places us there with all our senses. For the reader, living in this immersive world adds depth to the fast-paced action, tragic arc of the plot and the multi-dimensional characters. Hawker turns her descriptions of place into integral aspects of the novel. Here, for example, in the opening paragraphs, she paints the physical world, complete with its odors, while portraying both the patterns of everyday life and building a looming sense of threat that will disrupt them. That’s quite a tour de force.
“On the last day of spring, the moon is just past full and still visible, pale and round in the late-morning sky. The women of the great chief take their embroidery, their gossip, and their games to the shaded rooftop where the breeze is cool. This is the season when the winds come from the east—from Eran and from India beyond, slow and languid and heavy with the odors of spice: the bitter taste of golpar, the bright bloom of coriander; the low earthy hum of rose; and cinnamon, sweet and compelling as a lover’s voice.
These are the odors of wealth, of gold. And gold is the odor of blood.”
I recommend this entrancing and exciting novel of a place and time we lost first to time and then again to terrorism.