Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

A Thousand Nights
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Hardcover, 328 pages, Disney Hyperion
Genres: YA, Fantasy, Fairytale Retelling

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.

My Review

This is a powerful story. It’s not powerful because there’s a kickass female heroine who wields her sword and her wits better than any man,—because there isn’t one of those in this book—but because the women characters in the story, despite being trapped in a patriarchal system, have their own form of power that the men in the story tend to underappreciate or overlook. But the narrator doesn’t let them.

This One Thousand and One Nights retelling starts off with the introduction to our unnamed main character, the girl who will sacrifice herself for her sister’s sake. The fact that this narrator is never given a name is very disappointing. The only character who is actually named, and not just called by his or her profession or family title, is the prince, Lo-Melkhiin. I can understand why the author chose to do this, it creates more of a fairytale atmosphere and it weaves a story that, should it have been borne in a time in which oral story-telling was the norm, could have, and probably would have, been passed down between mothers and daughters. It would have strengthened their hearts to hear of a female girl, a girl with no true political ties or rich family background, to stand up to the demon-possessed prince. But in this day and age, I just couldn’t connect with the characters because they are nameless, thus, they seem unimportant. Names are power in the written word and not having them lost a little bit of the book’s potential power and left the characters feeling as almost inconsequential.

Despite the narrator not having a name, she herself is a strong girl. To marry a man who could take everything from you, just to save your sister, is an unbelievably difficult decision, but that is what gives her strength, in more ways than one. This aspect is what makes the story so beautiful. That there are women out there, praying to the narrator because they believe in her and because they want her to succeed is what makes the true heroine of the book. Instead of this just being about one girl taking on a corrupt king, this book is about thousands of girls and women taking on a corrupt system.

The book’s plot plays out like a long fairytale. It is told from one central action to another, much like any other book would be. However, the point of view of the book does change at times to Lo-Melkhiin’s, though it is easy to recognize his voice and not get the two viewpoints—his and the female narrator’s—confused. Although the book does a good job keeping to the fairytale plotline, with the rising action, climax, etc., it becomes apparent by the end how things were going to wrap up because this method is so predictable. And while this didn’t lessen the core message of the story—which to me is the female power aspect—it does lessen the impact of that message. It is still a gorgeous story, though. It is one that could be told to a child at night, before bed, so he or she can dream of average boys and girls fighting for equality. Or better yet, read it yourself before bed and dream of fighting inequality, and maybe you’ll find a way to make that dream come true.

At first glance, this retelling is very similar to Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, but they really shouldn’t be compared. One is a dark romantic tale, and the other, A Thousand Nights, is a tale of oppression and freedom, of sacrifice and hope, and of a nameless girl who wants to do what she can to save her world.

*Note: I received a copy of this book to review via Netgalley. This in no way altered my opinion/review.

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