In a squalid ancient city on the edge of a desert (based in part on the African Sahara's Empty Quarter) a weary, thrill-seeking thief named Omari sets his home afire to start anew and to cover his many crimes. When the entire city is unintentionally destroyed by the flames, the cornered thief tells the displaced people a lie about a better place which only he can lead them to, across the desert. With the help of an aged, mysterious woman who knows a better place actually does exist, they set out. The desperate people must come together to fight their way through bandits, storms, epidemics, and more. As a result of Omari's involvement with Saba, a fiercely independent woman who is out to break him in the pay of a merchant whom he has offended, his life and the life of the caravan are in danger.
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Omari is a talented thief, but he’s not so smart when it comes to women. He has riches, a beautiful wife, and a big house. Yet his wife becomes angry with him and heads off to the city guard to tell of his many crimes. In an attempt to erase evidence of his wrongdoings, he sets fire to his house. Unfortunately, the flames don’t stop there and the entire city is lost. Now Omari, feeling quite bad about this, tells the people a lie about a wonderful land beyond the desert sands. There the adventure begins as a discordant group of people must either come together to succeed or will fall apart under the numerous assaults they suffer.
This is a beautiful, captivating story. In very little time, I was caught up in the tale. Omari is a flawed young man with a good heart. He grew up thieving, having no one to take care of him. Yet, he also goes out of his way to see that the homeless old woman, Umal, has regular food and wine. Once he accidentally burns the city down, he knows he can’t stay with Sumosi’s group of people, for Sumosi and many of his guards would love to beat Omari to death. Yet he can’t survive in the desert on his own. Partly out of hope, partly out of desperation, he concocts a story about a far off land, rich in food and water. Others wish to leave and so they band together behind Omari.
One of my favorite things about this story is that the women were just as varied, useful, and flawed as the men. Saba is great with a bow. Jasmina was the best dance instructor in the city before it burned. Umal is a unique character who perhaps has special powers, or perhaps is just very good at reading people and lucky in circumstance. Sofia, mother of two young sons (Haroun and Zolani), teaches this newly formed caravan how to make flatbread. The men are just as interesting. Bin Aswad, a cloth merchant with two daughters, has his pride and when his pride is injured, he can’t let it go. Umbaric used to be the captain of the guards. As such, he knows about Omari’s previous life. It was great to see how Omari eventually won Umbaric over. There’s plenty more characters, and each one brings some facet to this caravan story.
As Omari’s caravan searches for this fabled land, they have to endure much. The first difficulty is in procuring camels, then in learning how to load, ride, and care for the camels. Desert storms, swarms of flies, pestilence, severe dehydration, and raiders are all things the caravan will have to learn to deal with. I appreciate that the author didn’t keep everything all roses; he threw in some thorns and not every character comes out of this story intact.
As a side note, there were oryx, which I have a fondness for. It was great to read about the first oryx hunt by these once-city dwellers. It reminded me of my first time seeing oryx in the New Mexico desert, chasing them in a Jeep. I, like some of those hunters, was not too smart in that moment.
The ending was very satisfying. Omari has changed little by little throughout the story. Other characters have also grown through their experiences. Umal eventually reveals a little more about her nature, though much is left to the reader to guess. I recommend this excellent story be paired with a strong mint tea.
I received this audiobook at no cost from the author (via The Audio Book Worm) in exchange for an honest review.
The Narration: Curt Simmons does an excellent job with this story. He had a light Arabic accent, perhaps Egyptian, for the entire book. I love it when narrators go out of their way to do this as it makes such a difference in how much I become submerged in the story. He had a great young man’s voice for Omari. He also did a great job with the female voices. Umal sounds like an old woman, Sofia sounds like a worried mother, Saba sounds like a determined young lady. I especially liked his half-joking, sometimes sly voice for Umbaric.
I enjoyed the way the narrator took me on this journey with Omari. They accented vocals made me feel transported to a world far from my own. It helped immerse one into Omari's world and made it feel more authentic. Like I was sitting in a small room with a native talking a story about his life and history.