Book Discussion: A Thousand Nights

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

Summary

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 21524446and 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.

heartRomance Score: Not a Bit

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.

RosieFeminist 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.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: Not a Bit/You’re Trying

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.

wow iconAwesome Score: You’re Trying

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.


Favorite Character

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?”

Favorite Line

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.

Read These Next

As mentioned, The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh or An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir for another world where stakes are high and escape is difficult and family must be saved.

Author Post: Jess

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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.

2 Comments

Filed under Science Fiction & Fantasy

2 responses to “Book Discussion: A Thousand Nights

  1. Popping in here to let anyone that reads this review: Almost EVERYONE else I’ve seen talking about this book loved it…so don’t just go off my comments. – Jess

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  2. Rose

    The stuff with the henna was also really distracting for me. One time she says the hair-henna’s for scent, not color (though it would give hair a red tint in sunlight), but another time it’s implied it’s for the color when some but not all of the color comes out of her hair in the bath water (also that’s not how henna works at all). There’s no time for it to oxidize and darken, and the designs are renewed ever day. In my limited experience with henna both for hair and hands, it’s a brownish green mud that stains everything, but the author treats it like paint.

    Other than that, I appreciated the fuzzy worldbuilding, though I can see how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It felt more like a studio Ghibli movie—why is this happening? There are giant birds? The wind can kill you? Okay! It reminded me of when I was reading old, old poems in Chinese, like Big Rat. There’s not much set in times like that, so I enjoyed that.

    The one thing I’d add to the feminism score: I’m new around here and don’t know how you define it, but I tend to see the need for feminism in books as more than a strong, well, developed female character. I would place A Thousand Nights higher because of the emphasis on community, particularly the female community, as well as the value given to women’s work.

    “Unaccountably, I chafed at my inaction. I know it was futile. I was a prisoner of the walls, and though the spinning room was open to me, I was not content to spend my days making thread. I missed stitching and weaving. I missed grinding grain and kneading dough. I missed being useful and part of a family.”

    I found that element of the book refreshing. It’s not very often I see a story that values the labor women provide, and rarer still for that work to do something like fuel the magic of the protagonist.
    As for community, feminism in the west has focused a lot on freeing women from the home and being considered on equal terms with men. However, the issue of ‘double labor’ (being expected to do both household, non-glorified work in addition to work outside the home) is still a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should go back to Angel in the House days and glorify housework and ban women from other occupations, but at the same time, failing to acknowledge housework and craft work (and teaching and caretaking) as ‘work’ with the same value as traditionally male occupations is a problem that devalues those who perform it. I appreciated that the author directly highlights the divide between male and female labor when the narrator notes the difference between the way men and women pray and the way Lo-Melkhiim initially ignores the women while he spurs the men on magically. It.’s always clear by the way the narrator speaks of the fabrics and designs that she values their work.

    The strong community was also really neat. I don’t want to say “women are inherently social” or anything like that, but historically when male power is focused on the individual, disenfranchised individuals tend to find strength and power in community. That played a huge role in the book. Again, we tend to devalue communal ties in an individualistic society, but the standards for what power looks like are generally set by individuals with power— in an essay on feminism and International Relations (a field that was once dominated by “great power politics” discussions and is heavily white and male) power was defined as a competitive zero sum game where there are winners and losers, whereas when women were interviewed about their definition of power, they were much more likely to view collaboration and compromise as a form of power, something that was described as weak and futile in previous dialogue. Again, not to say women are inherently peaceful, but disenfranchised people have to deal with power differently than those who can easily grab it. That’s why I loved the power of female communities in this book. I can’t think of another book where they okay so strong a role.

    On top of all that, the book focuses on the power of women in their communities even though there was considerable evidence that externally, this is a male-dominated world (polygamy, her brothers don’t lower themselves to sew, her brother orders her around, only city men are named, her father gives her mother commands that are implied sexual, male leaders, patrilineal system, their family’s smallgod is her father’s father’s father, etc). In each of those things, the narrator never seemed to care that men saw those things as lower than them: she worships her mother’s mother’s mother alongside the other smallgod, when her brother commands, she and her sister ignore, she is impressed and awed by the crafts her brothers don’t lower themselves to, women work together to get her the morning-after tea when she doesn’t want to bear an heir to Lo-Melkhiin, it is by spinning and weaving that she channels her smallgod magic, her mother controls the situation when she acquiesces to her father’s demands, and her mother and sister’s mother are best friends, and that’s not to mention how even though the men seem to hold women in priestly clothes as otherworldly and foreboding, even sinister, the main character never dreads and in fact finds great strength that her sister fore goes marriage to focus on priestly duties to worship her and give her strength. Basically, if you’re not paying attention, you might not even notice the hints that this is a strongly patriarchal society apart from Lo-Melkhiim’s obvious control on the men because the narrator’s perception is given the most narrative significance and she is not ashamed of anything she does, or the work that women do, or the relationships that she has. To me, that’s incredibly feminist and I loved it.

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