Genres: Fantasy, Retelling, Young Adult
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.
Always, it seemed, men would overlook unpleasant things for the sake of those that went well. The statues’ eyes for the melodious sounds of the fountain. The deaths of their daughters for the bounty of their trade.
There was great beauty in this qasr, but there was also great ugliness and fear. I would not be like those men who turned their eyes from one to see the other. I would remember what those things cost.
Amidst the dozens of YA fairy tale retellings, A Thousand Nights stands out. It will immediately be compared to The Wrath and the Dawn, even if the two could not be more different from one another. If you go into this one expecting it to be like TWatD, you will be disappointed. The two books attempt completely different things, though in my opinion both succeed in what they are trying to achieve.
A Thousand Nights has gotten a mixed reception and it only takes a few pages to realize why. The writing style does not have the same easy readability and accessibility that people expect from YA books. It’s quite dense and the whole book is very literary; a fast-paced adventure is not what you will find in these pages. There were times where I struggled with this: I would have to reread paragraphs because my mind drifted elsewhere or had to go back a few pages because I had missed one of the subtle hints. So this book wasn’t always enjoyable, and yet I really liked it.
Most authors who write fairy tale or mythological retellings stay very much on the surface of the original tale (that I’ve read). They retell the plot. I’m not saying that’s bad, I enjoy those retellings, but E.K. Johnston takes it a step further. Not only does she reimagine the storyline, but she rethinks symbolism and themes and cleverly subverts them. The original frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, is that of Scheherazade who offers herself to be the next bride of the king, a king who kills all of his wives after one night. But Scheherazade is clever and begins to tell the king a tale without ending it. The king, curious to hear the story’s conclusion, is thus forced to postpone his wife’s execution. This goes on for 1,001 nights, after which the king has fallen in love with his wife and no longer wishes to kill her.
E.K. Johnston took this idea but created something unique with it. The main character’s power does indeed stem from storytelling, but not in the sense of the original story. Instead, her stories are magic, literally. I loved that concept. The author is similarly clever when it comes to naming her characters. Nobody in this book has a name except for the king, Lo-Melkhiin. This could have been confusing or jarring but ended up working so well. Lo-Melkhiin’s name will be the one remembered, the one written down in the history books. He is the king. A man. Yet, his story will change according to the person who tells it, depending on the era and political circumstances. Other names, the names of the women, will be forgotten, lost in the movement of time, but their stories will not. Nameless has always meant anonymous, overlooked, unimportant. But in this story, the nameless hold the true power. Thus E.K. Johnston has managed to take a story that is sexist at its core, and make it into a strong feminist work. How wonderful.
Already, the story is changing.
When men tell it in the souks and in the desert, they shape it to fit their understanding. It passes from caravan to caravan, to places where they have never heard of the one called Lo-Melkhiin. The words change language, and meaning is lost and gained in every vowel’s shift. They change the monster into a man, and they change her into something that can be used to teach a lesson: if you are clever and if you are good, the monster will not have you.
You should not believe everything you hear.
But A Thousand Nights doesn’t only shine with its themes and message. The atmosphere is what really makes this book. It’s so vivid that you can feel the hot desert air on your skin, the wind in your hair, can smell the spices and hear the rush of the fountain. E.K. Johnston is a forensic archaeologist and has spent six summers in the Jordan desert (working on the Wadi ath-Thamad project) and you can tell. She writes the Middle Eastern culture authentically (at least as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge).
It reads so much like a fairy tale. Like it has been written hundreds of years ago and been passed down through the generations. Like a story told around campfires. The writing was poetic and evocative.
And then there is the main character and narrator. She was so brave, selfless and determined. She never gave up hope and stayed true to herself and her people. She was smart and knew when to hold her tongue, when to strike and when to lay in waiting. She had a plan and saw it though. I rooted for her all the way.
“I am yours to command, husband,” I said to him, and met his eyes.
When my mother spoke to our father, she often said that. He liked it, the way she put herself in his hands. Until just now, I had not realized that since my mother was the one who allowed it, she had more power than even he might have realized. Lo-Melkhiin thought I was less than him; but his was not the only tally.
It was also beautiful to see the relationships between the women in this story. They are a community, a family and support each other no matter what. They are each other’s sources of strength. One of the driving sources of the book is the relationship between the MC and her sister. There is no jealousy, no pettiness only love and respect between them. They would die for one another. It was so refreshing.
Overall, A Thousand Nights is a slow-paced book that lacks action but is beautifully told, complex and thought-provoking. Though I may not have enjoyed every minute of the reading experience, it left me with a lot of emotions and thoughts. Recommended!