It’s been nearly a year since the end of ‘Rebel of the Sands’ and Amani now faces a world where the message of the Rebel Prince is spreading across the desert. When she is cruelly betrayed and kidnapped, Amani must use every ounce of her survival instincts to get herself out of the Sultan’s harem and learn as much as she can while there.
When I was in the midst of drafting ‘Traitor to the Throne’ I sent a text to friend that read, “Harems are just like an 80’s High School with more murder.”
Ok, so maybe I was what I call “drafting delirious” by the time I sent that text. But even with the book printed and the delirium long gone I sort of stand by that point.
With about a third of the book set in the sultan’s harem, I read quite a bit about them while researching ‘Traitor to the Throne’. The more I did, the more it occurred to me that they defined a series of strange contradictions. An entirely female space but constructed by men. A place that is both highly sexualised but not sexually liberated. Where women are powerless but play an incredible complex power game between them.
And then it occurred to me that these aren’t actually strange contradictions, they’re ones we live with everyday. In 1985’s ‘The Breakfast Club’ Ally Sheedy’s Basket Case iconically declares “If you haven’t you’re a prude, if you have you’re a slut, it’s a trap.” A trap that the girls of the harem would understand just as well as the students of an Illinois. A trap which one of the characters falls into, and loses her head for. In a world where women in the media are simultaneously packaged up as sexual objects and then shamed if they own their sexuality or take it “too far” this made me realise how close I was straying to reality.
While ‘Rebel of the Sands’ was about girls being strong in big bold brash ways,‘Traitor to the Throne’ quickly became about a different, more quiet form of sexism that more closely matches the one we’re likely to encounter in our modern world. These are girls navigating a world made for them by men, stripped of freedoms but given luxuries to cover up the hole left behind so that if they dare complain someone might spread their arms and ask what they could possibly be wanting for.
Just like the mean girls in high school movies, or real life high school, some of the girls chose to play the game they are being given in order to win. In ‘Traitor’ this is a trio of young women who go as far as to slice off Amani’s hair in a bid to make her less appealing. I guess it reminded me of old high school tropes because of the way girls are both treated and pitted against each other. If you want to talk about girls going violent towards other girls, let’s talk about ‘Heathers’.
Others chose not to play the game and subtly resist. In a scene where Amani is being threatened by a man in the harem one of the young women takes it upon herself to distract him long enough to ensure her escape. And when another character plays the game too well and it backfires, Amani does her best to bail her out before it gets her killed.
And ultimately that is the shape that the feminist fight takes on in ‘Traitor to the Throne’. For Amani it’s about literally breaking out of the harem. The one we get up and go to work chipping away at every day is about breaking down those walls metaphorically and entering a world that is decided by men and women, not by men for women. Where we make our choices about how to act and what to do without the same impunity that men are granted for the same behavior. And where girls aren’t turned on each other for no good reason.