This is what I call an "awareness novel," a book intended primarily to inform readers about some tragic contemporary situation. At its best, the awareness novel can inspire real-world change: see Upton Sinclair's [b:The Jungle|41681|The Jungle|Upton Sinclair|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1332140681s/41681.jpg|1253187] (although ironically, the change that book inspired wasn't what Sinclair had in mind). But there's a reason few people read The Jungle anymore, although schoolkids are routinely assigned the passage about meat-packing factories: it's not a great piece of literature. You can't help but feel bad for the characters, since the characters were created specifically to elicit sympathy, but it's an unremittingly tragic and didactic book without any great characterization or literary value to redeem it.
Sand Queen has the same problem. You can't help but be outraged at the constant sexual harassment and fear of sexual assault that the female soldiers face and the cruel way the army responds to such problems. You can't help but be saddened by the plight of the Iraqi civilians. You can't help but be horrified at the soldiers' going into harm's way with outdated, insufficient protective gear, and disheartened by the alienation and PTSD they suffer even after returning home. So yes, the book successfully inspires the emotions it was intended to inspire. That said, I didn't learn as much as I was expecting to; any reasonably informed person already knows something about the destructive effects of PTSD, for instance, and that life is grim for civilians in Iraq, and in those areas I didn't learn anything beyond what one can get just by paying attention to the news. Nor did the book make me care the way a truly great book can: I finished [b:A Thousand Splendid Suns|128029|A Thousand Splendid Suns|Khaled Hosseini|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345958969s/128029.jpg|3271379] caring deeply about Afghanistan (crazy as that may sound), but I didn't have the same reaction here.
This book mostly follows Kate, a young female soldier deployed to Iraq in 2003, who faces everything from IEDs to sexual harassment to her own increasingly violent impulses. Naema, an Iraqi woman, narrates a smaller portion of the book and her storyline intersects with Kate's. Kate is a much better character than Naema; we never learn much about Naema except that her life experiences have caused her to hate Americans, and the most interesting aspect of her character, the fact that she's a medical student, gets little attention. Kate is much better-developed and struggles with her interpersonal relationships, her religious beliefs, the conflict between her self-image as a soldier and the terrible situations she finds herself in, and so on.
But I was disappointed, in a book set in Iraq, to learn very little about Iraqi culture. Especially since I'd previously read Benedict's [b:Sailor's Wife|170002|The Sailor's Wife|Helen Benedict|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1172373384s/170002.jpg|164153], where she does a much better job exploring recent Greek history and peasant culture in the Mediterranean.
At only about 300 pages, Sand Queen is a quick read. Once I put it down, I didn't have much desire to pick it back up, but when I sat down to read it, it was a page-turner. It's clear throughout where the story is going (especially given Kate's scattered flash-forward chapters), but there are still twists along the way. The writing style is all right but not exceptional. However, Benedict's writing is about as subtle as a load of bricks; for instance, Naema routinely thinks things like:
"Are these the people the Americans have come to help? If so, how does it help to drop bombs on their houses and imprison their sons and fathers? To destroy their villages, already so poor, and slaughter their babies? To murder them and not even know their names? Is this the way to liberate a people from a dictator? Or has the world gone mad for the taste of oil and blood?"
But back to the treatment of women in the military, since that seems to be Benedict's biggest concern. An author dealing with this topic walks a fine line: talk too much about women being raped, harassed and assaulted and you risk convincing some in your audience that women just shouldn't be in the military at all. Benedict veers a little too far that way for my personal (civilian, but supporter of women in the military) comfort level: two of the three female soldiers featured here are sexually assaulted and suffer severe PTSD. Kate, we learn early on, ultimately breaks down, and while I think she'd have been much better at handling the horrors of war had she not suffered constant sexual harassment and worse from both the Iraqis and her own colleagues (essentially she's fighting a non-stop war on two fronts), a less sympathetic reader might view her as simply being unable to deal with mortar attacks, losing friends, and primitive living conditions--which soldiers of both genders have to deal with, but which seem to affect the men in this book much less. And that's without mentioning Kate's being distracted by a romance with a male colleague. Another woman in the book is a paragon of everything a soldier should be, but Kate's troubles get the primary focus.
For me, Sand Queen did work as an awareness novel, although not as a book I'm likely to re-read or recommend. A generous three stars.