A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
The king, Lo-Melkhiin, is killing his wives. He was a strong, fair leader and then, after he went out to hunt, he came back cold and hungry for brides. No one knows exactly why his wives die, but they know they don’t like it. The people of the kingdom enforce a system – one girl from every village before the cycle starts again. So, when it’s time for our main character’s village, she knows her beautiful, stunning, amazing sister will be picked – because everyone loves her more. Since the main character is strong and loyal, she knows she has to do something to gain the king’s attention and take her sister’s place. She successfully does so and then, once she’s in the palace and married, manages to live out the night – and many more. Lo-Melkhiin finds her an intriguing adversary and she uses mysterious powers to keep death at bay.
Lo-Melkhiin is killing his brides. And it’s totally by choice. The main character is fighting for her life in a situation with a huge power imbalance. There’s no cute guy coming to save her and she’s not looking for one. I guess there could be some romance if you consider how her parents respect and honor each other, but…since she gets pulled from her village fairly early on, I don’t count that.
Feminist Score: Good Effort
I give points here because the main character is a strong, clever girl doing what she can to ensure the safety of her family and her people. She maintains a respect for her culture and does her best to subvert the power systems to work for her. In addition, she becomes a symbol of strength and a smallgod (sort of saint or protector) for the women and girls of her kingdom which is pretty badass. Overall, I think she’s a pretty cool character even if she’s a little obedient or submissive in the palace.
What I did not like was the motivation behind sacrificing herself for her sister. Even though it was slightly played as “I’m stronger/made for this,” the narrative about her sister being more beautiful, more beloved, and all around better came through more clearly – and it felt like a kind of “I’m not worthy of living, so I’ll just die for her” sacrifice rather than courage. Now, she still sacrificed herself and found a wellspring of power while doing so, so I’m not docking points (we all find strength through different scenarios), but it was a little disappointing.
This may not feel like a fair score to some readers, but I have reasons. Good things first: the character lives in a desert and is part of an underrepresented culture. She’s a girl that saves the world. Faith is a big part of the story. And yet.
Even though this book takes place in a newly created desert culture, I felt like a lot of the words and details used to give cultural “flavor” were added in after cursory google searches. For example, I found the description and use of veils (face and hair) fairly inconsistent throughout the book. In one scene, it talks about how she wears her hair loose under her scarf; I know this is definitely common practice in some communities, but it didn’t make sense in relation to later scenes. And the use and discussion of henna was seriously confusing. Like, so confusing I wonder if the author has ever used or been around henna. Throughout the book, the main character is given daily henna designs to prepare her for events/seeing her husband. Generally, it seems as though this happens after she is bathed and dressed in her finery, but there is never any discussion (that I remember) of letting the henna dry, sitting still to ensure the designs don’t get marred, or removing the dried henna. This is most obvious in one scene where she is running late and the henna master comes to reapply the designs just before she gets dressed and goes out to see Lo-Melkhiin. This is problematic because 1. her henna would still be wet and 2. if she did have a few minutes to let it dry, little crumbly bits of brown paste would be falling off while they ate or talked and I doubt that is appealing for her husband-king.
Those are small details. Another huge thing is the religious-cultural placement. With a title so explicitly referencing A Thousand Nights/Arabian Tales, the story feels oddly placed – I originally thought this was because it didn’t seem to tie into the usual Arab and/or Muslim context, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s just poor worldbuilding. The addition of magic and the “beings” that roam the world “using” humans also added to the troubling bits. I don’t know if the author removed it from Islamic culture because referencing djinn (a genie -though never named as such) and magic would entail more work and cultural knowledge or if she was trying to pull the story out of that cultural context for some other reason, but it sort of felt like a cop out. I think this book would function better with a different title, too. This one calls back to a well known set of stories and then removes itself almost completely from the traditional tales; not referencing the originals would make it work better as a whole. Overall, the world was underdeveloped – if this was supposed to be a totally new world, the worldbuilding needed to be more complete, if this was referencing an existing culture, the lines needed to be drawn more clearly.
NOTE (3/2016): I’ve heard a lot about the author’s intentions and she definitely tried to make this a polytheist/pagan culture so that it didn’t call back to Arab/Muslim culture. She also was/is an archeologist so I feel a little bad for saying she didn’t seem to do research – I’m sure she did a lot. I think it comes down to the title calling up things that made it unfair to judge.
Overall, I was intrigued by the premise. It seems Scheherazade/One Thousand and One Nights retellings are a coming trend and I’m excited to see how the stories are placed (or replaced) in cultural contexts. I had high hopes for this book and at times throughout the story I was drawn in and intrigued, but overall I took a lot of notes on the random, weird details that pulled me out of the book. Generally for me, lots of notes means a story is lacking depth or pull because I am more focused on small things than on the exciting characters and narrative. I think the world Johnston built could be really engaging and interesting, but it feels like it sits at a 5 when it needs a 10. I also found the power/magic confusing and underdeveloped; maybe that’s a narrative tool since the main character never really understands it, but it just felt poorly written.
Even so, the premise of the story is intriguing and I think that some readers will enjoy the book.
The Skeptic scholar – I liked his subplot and the main character’s interaction with him
I didn’t mention the Skeptics in my comments above, but this again was such a weird naming choice because it made me think “Are we in Rome? How are we in Rome now?”
There are some powerful lines in this book, but I was so distracted by the random other things I didn’t write any down. One thing to note – there are very few character names used throughout the book. We never learn the main character’s name and most other characters are referenced by relation (“my sister,” “Lo-Melkhiin’s mother”) which is an interesting choice.
Fun Author Fact
E.K. Johnston is/was an archeologist!
Is this worth a book hangover?
Personally, I would say no. But, different books for different folks (Yes, I know that doesn’t exactly rhyme). The premise is intriguing and the character is strong, it might do it for you. I’ve been holding off because I really don’t want to compare books to one another, but if you are intrigued by a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, I’d rather recommend The Wrath and the Dawn. Its world is more developed and the characters are more compelling, though the focus is different.
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Author Post: Jess
Note: I received access to an early ebook of A Thousand Nights through NetGalley. My review is (I think, obviously) not affected by that.
Jess loves SFF – old and new school – and is learning to appreciate the more lovey-dovey YA under the careful tutelage of Anisha’s recommendations.