Release Date: October 6th, 2015
Synopsis: 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’ll 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.
“There is life, and there is living–that is what she learned.”
This is the second retelling of One Thousand and One Nights I’ve read in the past few months, the first being the incredible The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh. While it was extremely difficult not to compare the two, for the most part I was successful. If you choose to read both these books, I recommend you space them apart. Unfortunately I find myself feeling a bit conflicted regarding the merits of this book.
Let me first address one of the most criticized elements of the book: the fact that none of the characters actually have names except for King Lo-Melkhiin, not even the heroine. Everyone else is referred to as “my sister, my mother” and my personal favorite, “my father’s father’s father”. Many reviewers have found this to be distracting from the story and I can understand why, but once I got used to the author’s writing style, I found it quite clever on her part. Lo-Melkhiin casts such a strong evil pall over the entire story, you can understand why the other characters would have a difficult time establishing their own identities. But you know what? Amazingly they do.
First, there’s our unnamed heroine who for the purposes of this review I’m going to call ‘S’ for the original Scheherazade. S is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve read thus far this year. Her quiet strength and fortitude is what drives this story. She sacrifices so much, not only for her sister, but also for her people. She’s presented with the opportunity to escape her situation more than once, yet she refuses to take the easy way out–instead choosing to act for the greater good. This is a woman who uses her wits to survive each night spent with a demon. While she starts out as another soon to be forgotten bride, she ends up as a leader in her own right.
Lo-Melkhiin is anything but a stereotypical dimensional villain. While he’s despicable and commits some horrific acts, not the least taking young innocent girls and killing them shortly after the marriage, there is a reason behind his actions. I’m not going to say too much in the interest of not giving away spoilers, but it’s revealed that he’s a victim also. The descriptions of his life before he becomes the villain makes him just as a compelling character as S. There’s little romance in this book, and the few slightly intimate passage are repugnant because of the corruption in Lo-Melkhiin.
There are many outstanding secondary characters such as the sister of S, Lo-Melkhiin’s mother, and even the woman who is in charge of painting henna on S whenever she ventures out in public. Which leads me to one of the greatest strengths of this novel. Despite this world seeming to be at first ruled by a patriarchal society, it’s anything but. When all is said and done, A Thousand Nights is about the women–Women whose devotion and quiet strength are the very foundation of this story. It’s the type of female representation that should be included in every novel, especially those written for children and YAs.
The other strength of this novel is the beautiful language the author employs to create this captivating world and it’s characters. “Sumptuous” and “exquisite” don’t even begin to do justice to what E.K. Johnston has created. Reading this novel for me was like watching an artistic master like DaVinci paint right before my eyes. The amount of detail provided in regards to the physical surroundings, clothing, etc. is simply amazing. I felt the sand of the desert stinging my face and the silkiness of the cloth used to garb S in her role of Queen. Weaving plays an important part in this story: the weaving of cloth, the weaving of the stories told by S to Lo-Melkihiin, the weaving together of the characters lives. It’s all done with incredible care by Johnston.
All this brings me to what I perceive to be the main weakness of this book: the slowness in the unfolding of events, especially in the first half of the story. As I said, one of the greatest strengths is the amount of detail put into the world-building. Unfortunately, it’s this same amount of detail that tends to bog down the action. Once you reach the midway point however, the pace picks up. The problem is that by the time this happens, I fear many readers, particularly teens, will have given up. This is a shame, because I think otherwise, this book offers so much.
While in some respects the ending takes a somewhat easy way out, there are some twists which save it from being your typical, eye-rolling Disneyfied happily ever after.
So. Would I recommend A Thousand Nights? Surprisingly, my answer is yes. While lacking some of the passion and action of The Wrath and the Dawn (I know. I know. I said I wouldn’t compare the two, but honestly, if you read the two books, you really can’t help it), this book is one of those quiet ones that quietly sneaks up on you and winds up leaving quite an impact.