I think many readers are in agreement that this book is a slow-burning story. I was aware of this. But even with that, I underestimated its slow-going-ness.
Not that that’s completely a bad thing.
A THOUSAND NIGHTS
by E.K. Johnston
Disney Hyperion, October 2015
Fairy tale fantasy
Rated: / 5 cookies
provided by NetGalley
Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.
And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time.But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.
Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.
Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.
The tale of Scheherazade is a fantastic one. There is the king who finds that his wife is unfaithful to him, and in this unfortunate transgression, he concludes that all women must be unfaithful (one must also conclude that this king wasn’t very adept in logic, but that’s a whole other ballgame, I suppose). As a solution, he kills off his cheating wife, and proceeds to lop off the heads of his consecutive wives after one night because he figured eventually they were going to have sordid affairs right, left, and center. This continues to happen up until Scheherazade, who was tired of the king’s hypocritical and chauvinistic bullshit, volunteers herself as tribute.
What Scheherazade does is clever and self-sacrificing. She risks her neck in the hopes that perhaps she can do what no other bride could: stay alive. As the daughter of the vizier (in most accounts), Scheherazade is a learned woman, and knows her way around cultural, philosophical, and political nuances. She isn’t just a pretty face. And as it were, she succeeds in what she goes out to do. She “tames the beast” with a thousand tales, prolonging her life just long enough that the king falls in love and keeps her alive. She does this without shedding blood. She makes do with her mind and voice as weapons (I mean, imagine if she’d gotten bronchitis or something! That would have been disastrous.). She uses words and stories to win the king’s heart.
That is kickass.
I’ve always loved the idea of Scheherazade, and I’d read a most excellent retelling of her tale in Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner. When I saw the beautiful cover in NetGalley and read the summary, I jumped to the opportunity to read A Thousand Nights. The book certainly shines a different light to Scheherazade’s story.
The protagonist is taken away in place of her sister, and put in Lo-Melkhiin’s palace, where every night she fights for her life. Similarly, the protagonist uses her words to match wits with the murderous king, though in this version, the king is possessed by a demon (I want to say it’s an evil and powerful djinni from the description of the monster). It’s no wonder Lo-Melkhiin keeps killing his wives. Fortunately for the protagonist, she’s got a power of her own, one that could very well battle against the demon and win.
A Thousand Nights was beautifully written. It was a prime example of “painting with words,” because the setting was vivid and descriptive, and often even the dialogue is pretty. I adored the worldbuilding that went along with the tale, and certainly I thought the protagonist and her sister shared a bond that was grand and beautiful and everything you could ask for in a familial relationship.
As I said before, I also expected the slow-burning plot. At times it worked, and I was more than happy reading the descriptions and goings-on of the protagonist’s regular day. There is, however, such a thing as being too slow, and at other times I was skimming the day-to-day drudgery in order to get to the good stuff, only to realize that even the “good stuff” doesn’t amount to much.
I liked the story, it had an aesthetic feel to it that I normally don’t find in much YA (I think this is marketed as YA…). But I’m not in love with it.
I couldn’t sympathize with the nameless protagonist or her nameless family; it was really hard trying to put an identity in any of the protagonist’s family members, so they all became just a huge blob of mother’s mother’s sister’s brother’s cousins and whatnot (gods, don’t get me started on the speech about relatives). The named characters barely show up, and the most interesting ones–Sokath and Firh–have maybe a page or two of conversation with the protagonist and they mostly disappear again in the story. Lo-Melkhiin’s story was the most interesting one of all, and I’d wished his freedom from demon-possession hadn’t been so haphazardly dismissed with a single wish (though admittedly the whole “five words” description was a nice touch).
Also, believe it or not, I could have also used a bit of romance. There was almost nothing of it in A Thousand Nights. I mean, I’m not asking for full-blown Stockholm syndrome romance here, but if the protagonist wasn’t getting much romantic prose going her way, why couldn’t her sister?! I don’t know, it just seemed like an opportunity wasted to me, especially when there was such good writing and no romance to invest in.
3.5 out of 5 cookies! I’ve read a few reviews that compare this book to The Wrath and the Dawn. I might have to pick that up at some point, though I probably shouldn’t read Scheherazade stories back-to-back.
3 thoughts on “Review: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston”
Interestingly, I just picked this book up last week and “The Wrath and the Dawn” last month. Have yet to read either. I’m glad that this book lives up to what I’ve heard about its being literary, although the literary trick employed here with the lack of names is probably not for a YA audience.
Btw, where else may I contact you? I need to send you an email about an interview opportunity 🙂
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Yeah, it was hard to relate to characters when you barely know their most basic identity (which imo, does come from a name).
And you can email away at firstname.lastname@example.org!