For the most part, Monica Hughes’ work for young adults had focused on science fiction. In 1985, however, she tried something different: Sandwriter, a fantasy partly inspired by her early life in Egypt, partly inspired by her ongoing concerns about the environment.
As a princess and heir to two kingdoms, each of which spans a continent, Antia has grown up in luxury, ignorance, isolation and above all, boredom. She is not quite bored enough, however, to jump at the chance to spend several months on the desert island of Roshan, something she regards as a punishment since, as she immediately tells her aunt—and, more regrettably, Lady Sofi, the woman extending the invitation—that Roshan is nothing but desert and dirt and flies. And that’s the nicer part.
Her tutor Eskoril, however, urges her to go anyway, for his sake. This might seem to be a terrible reason for anyone to deal with desert and dirt and flies, but Antia is in love—or at least thinks she’s in love—with him, and when he points out, truthfully, that now that she’s sixteen, various people, notably her aunt, will be watching her interactions with the opposite sex a lot more closely, potentially causing problems for the two of them, she can see his logic—and even feel relieved. After all, this means—surely—that he’s not asking her to leave because he’s not interested, but because he is. Plus, he assures her that his fortunes will soon be changing, and then—then—he might be an eligible suitor. She’s so relieved she not only agrees to go, but agrees to send back very detailed reports about everything. Antia needs to learn a lot more about men, is all I’m saying, but then again, she’s been isolated for much of her life.
Her agreement doesn’t mean she exactly arrives in Roshan with an open mind. The direct quote is, “No, she was not going to be made to love this place or its people. Never! Never!” an attitude not exactly helped by a series of small cultural clashes and misunderstandings, or by the clothing that her very royal and very haughty aunt insisted she bring along: formal, heavy, hot and completely unsuited to the weather.
Or by the critical letters that soon arrive from Eskoril, suggesting that she isn’t exactly doing much. Once again, Eskoril has a point. A later dinner conversation only emphasizes this, and convinces her that the people of Roshan are hiding something from her and her home kingdom of Kamalant. She insists that she be allowed to join a caravan, to see more of the island. Lady Sofi and her husband Hamrab agree, as long as she’s accompanied by their son Jodril; Antia detests him, but agrees.
And that brings her to the great dune, which everyone assures her isn’t hiding anything, definitely, absolutely, positively not.
In fact the great dune and its guardian, the Sandwriter, are hiding the two treasures of Roshan: a great pool of fresh water and an equally great pool of what the characters call methli and what readers will call oil. (It’s black, shiny, and the continents of Kamalant and Komilant can use it for energy.) And this, as it turns out, is also why Eskoril wanted Antia to head to Roshan: he wants its hidden treasures and powers. It just takes Antia a while to figure this out. And even longer to figure out what to do with that knowledge.
Sandwriter draws deeply from Hughes’ experiences in Egypt as a young child, from physical descriptions of the desert and the heat and mirages to Antia’s culture shock. But there’s a bit more going on here beyond working through childhood memories and attempting a somewhat new genre. Antia is being exploited by nearly everyone she meets: her aunt and uncle (the current rulers of both of the wealthy continents Antia may one day rule); her tutor, who uses her crush on him; Lady Sofi, Hamrab and Jodril; and even the Sandwriter, a mysterious desert guardian with her own agenda. She’s not the only one getting used here: Kamalant and Komilant are exploiting each other and trying to exploit Roshan; Eskoril hasn’t managed to exploit anyone other than Antia or her aunt yet, but he’s working on expanding that. A lot. Even the gods are getting into the act.
Which perhaps makes it all the more powerful that the main person resisting all of this exploitation—often successfully!—is an elderly woman, the Sandwriter. Who also, like Antia, just happens to be royal. I won’t lie: having the single most powerful human—and the only magic-user—in the book turn out to be an elderly lady was a genuine thrill. Until, that is, I realized that the only reason she has all this power is that everyone is exploiting her too,
In other words, this is mostly a book about people using each other, or trying to use each other, with the exception of some unnamed caravan people who end up, not getting used exactly, but not having a very good time. And this can make for some very powerful, yet uncomfortable reading.
My major problem with Sandwriter, however, has nothing to do with that: I can’t bring myself to like Antia. I should. It’s not, after all, her fault that she’s been so incredibly isolated and sheltered, or that this has, in turn, made her such a terrible judge of people. When challenged, she can and does do the right thing. She’s not always stupid. And much of her plight is sympathetic. Quite apart from the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture and climate, and leaving pretty much everything she has ever known, she’s surrounded by people who are either concealing the truth from her or outright lying for reasons of their own. No wonder she grows increasingly angry; I found myself entirely on her side when she started yelling at Jodril—and angry on her behalf when she was forced to apologize to him in order to eat.
(Did I mention, uncomfortable reading? Uncomfortable reading.)
And yet, I also found myself liking her less and less as the book continued. It might be me, or my age, but after awhile, Antia’s chronic complaints, sulks, and refusal to listen to anyone’s warnings turned from “accurate portrayal of a teenager” to “absolutely aggravating.” In part, I think, because no matter how much Antia learns how very, very little she knows, she never seems to actually learn this. In part because Antia’s stubborn refusal to listen to people isn’t portrayed as a reaction to learning that everyone around her is lying to her or using her or both (which would be understandable), but as a refusal to admit that she could ever be wrong. Which in turn means that Antia is not just a sulky, unpleasant, chronic complainer: she’s a sulky, unpleasant chronic complainer whose tendency to rush into danger and ignore warnings continually puts other people, including pretty much everyone on her home continent. And this is never accompanied by a moment of self-awareness. Done well, that can be fascinating: in this book, it became aggravating, to the point where I was, in the end, actively applauding Eskoril.
And when you’re taking the side of the dishonest spy who’s using a naïve teenager to help him take over the world….well, I suppose in his defense he would argue that he’s trying to bring peace to both continents in his own way. But still.
And I had another issue. I can certainly understand why the island of Roshan is carefully preserving its hidden cache of sweet, fresh water and hiding it from outsiders. I have a much larger problem understanding hiding the methli. The residents of Roshan are, after all, leaving in deep poverty, exploited by their wealthier northern neighbors. It’s entirely possible that the continents of Kamalant and Komilant will try to seize the methli and control it once they find out about it, but it’s also possible that Roshan could retain control of the methli and use it as a negotiating tool against their neighbors, or at least sell it for hard cash. That would undoubtedly cause a new set of problems, but the issue is, this option isn’t even getting discussed. The methli has to stay underground, untouched, even if a royal princess more or less has to sacrifice her life to guard it.
And this in turn begins to feel—how can I put this—just a little bit like a fantasy of how the Gulf States should have reacted after discovering their oil reserves. Which is also not a comfortable thought.
As you might be gathering, Sandwriter is not always a comfortable book, and not always a good one, either. But it also offers a lot more to think about than its surface story of a spoiled princess heading to the desert might suggest. Hughes liked it well enough to decide to return for a sequel, which we’ll look at next time.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.