I’ll admit, I picked it up because it was pretty.
A Thousand Nights was not the read I was expecting. I’m not quite sure it was the read I needed at the time, either. But it was a worthwhile read, the kind that grows on you, and well worth a review.
If you’re expecting the typical Scheherazade story, you’ll be disappointed.
A nameless narrator, with nameless family, tends sheep and spins thread in a desert vibrant in its anonymity – until she gives her life to Lo-Melkhiin in place of her beloved sister’s.
Married and taken to his qasr, but not isolated, she finds many allies, and many secrets, both about his unending killing spree of wives and her own power to withstand him. Her union with Lo-Melkhiin pits female against male, gods against demons, and love against pure viciousness in a battle that will change their world forever.
I do mean power. E.K. Johnston is unapologetic in her use of magic, changing the clever wit of Scheherazade’s unended stories into a magical talent brought about by the prayers of the narrator’s people, a “copper fire” that spreads between herself and her despised husband whenever they touch. Elements remain: her ability to tell stories, mostly of her sister and her life with her, intrigues Lo-Melkhiin long before she learns to control her magic, and even then her active power takes the form of making words become true when she speaks them. But a long series of tales, this book is not.
If anything, the story reads more closely to Beauty and the Beast.
It creeps up on you, like a slow shift of sand. The writing is impeccable, but calm and methodic, the telling of a fairy tale the way we used to tell them, where the characters are not panicked, or emotional, or very developed regardless of what happens to them. At first. It’s daydreaming in the desert, until you find you’ve traveled farther than you thought, and you’re baking in it fully like in the heat of the sun.
By the end, it had my heart racing like any YA novel’s battle for life.
But even so, I wouldn’t call this a usual YA. It’s a slightly less dense Robin McKinley book, where the protagonist has a suitably mature, and strong, voice for the age she is in the time period she is from, rather than a Marissa Meyer-type retelling that punches you in the gut with feisty female go-getters.
And I must say, I am not entirely sure I enjoy it as a “Thousand Nights” tale.
While One Thousand and One Nights has plenty of sexist elements to it, which Johnston very thoroughly and overtly twists into a study of the difference between, and ultimate matching of, female and male power, I enjoy the idea of storytelling wit alone bringing the narrator’s salvation. Perhaps it’s the writer in me.
The magic in this version comes to the narrator through no action of her own but her single brave sacrifice, and though she learns cleverly to control it, there isn’t the same sense of true intelligence and strength in words the way the Scheherazade tale always promises.
Despite its title, I suggest reading this book as its own story. The way we might watch a movie “loosely based” on truth. Leave expectations at the door, and let the desert dazzle you.