I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
Published by Disney Hyperion on October 6th 2015
Genres: Fairytale/Retelling, Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 336 •Format: ARC •Source: ALA
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.
“Good men fall to monsters every day. Clever men are tricked by their own pride or by pretty words. That is what happened to the king in the tale she tells.”
Very rarely do I find myself reading -and finishing- a book that was completely and totally not what I was expecting. Somehow, however, A Thousand Nights slipped through my bookish radar and when I finally got my hands on a much-coveted copy at ALA, I was somehow convinced it was going to be your average, run of the mill, Disney-washed Arabian folk tale retelling that was heavy on the Aladdin motifs (not that I’m knocking Disney, as the amount of time I spend at their parks should prove). However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book had much less in common with the overly stereotyped “Arabian Nights” theme and read much more lyrical and literary, with writing that brings a refreshingly sophisticated change of pace to the fairy tale/folk tale retelling genre.
As a religious studies major in college, the first thing that resonated with me is how the book read much more like historical fiction, calling upon seemingly realistic details to build its setting (I cannot vouch for its true authenticity, as I have not done any research into the culture/archaeology of the time and place where it is set). Family traditions and history play a huge role in the plot, as well as discussing rites of passage throughout the whole novel, an integral part of religious studies theory. Funeral rites, wedding rites, birthing rites, mourning rites, and more are not only mentioned but woven into the fabric of the tale, and I was astounded about how culturally nuanced this fantasy novel was until I discovered that the author herself is a trained archaeologist. Then things started making sense- how detailed the world is, how important rites of passage and daily rituals are to the characters, and how the storytelling felt reminiscent of a biblical or other religious story. Religious Studies scholars are often anthropologists and archaeologists of the Ancient Near East, studying the time and places and people that the religions are based upon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if E.K. Johnston has done hands on research into the culture of ancient Eastern cultures herself in preparing to write this book.
Reading the Bible and other religious texts from several worldwide traditions through an anthropological and literary lens, there are certain trends that become apparent, and one of those is that of an unnamed heroine. Female biblical figures will often go unnamed yet do great actions or suffer great tragedies that are integral to a setting in motion a larger series of events. A Thousand Nights follows this pattern of ancient storytelling, keeping every single character unnamed except Lo-Melkhiin. We never even learn the protagonist’s name, yet it does not diminish her strength as a character- rather it reinforces it as something as sacred and personal as a name is never shared with the reader, and yet we come to intimately know her thoughts all the same.
A Thousand Nights also featured strong feminist themes for me as a reader. Aside from the obvious connection of the protagonist being a strong female character who holds her own against a demon-king, there were many elements to the story and society that were matriarchal and focused on the importance of the female role in the community. Examples include only females in the protagonist’s community could perform priestly rites and interact with the dead, Lo-Melkhiin’s mother’s strong association and connection with lions, and the focus on the daily household rituals, such as food making and weaving cloth, that provided stability for the caravan community and developed important bonds between caravans. I was impressed to see a story that in its description seems so problematic (a king who has killed over 300 brides) place so much importance on the female’s role in the community and the agency the domestic and priestly rites afforded to only women.
When I tear my mind away from critically analyzing this book from a literary perspective, there were definitely some aspects that did and did not work for me. Though it was lyrical and purposeful in its execution, it could be extremely slow at some parts, with many quiet moments and personal introspection and nostalgia from the narrator. The narrator’s chapters were prefaced by an all-italicized portion that was supposedly from the “demon” in possession of Lo’Melkhiin, and in my opinion that decision gave the novel a slight feeling of telling over showing. There is also very little romance in this story, although it seems to be marketed with a romantic emphasis, which ultimately didn’t bother me much but may be a disappointment to readers expecting a love-based plot.
Overall: A Thousand Nights was not what I was expecting, but mostly in a good way. Written in a literary style that foregoes several “normal” conventions like character naming, the book focuses heavily on the female role in caravan communities and the family structure, as well as the strength of bonds between females rather than in a romantic relationship. This book can drag on, and the action sequence at the end felt rushed and crammed in, but ultimately this book was a more subtle approach to the rich world of Eastern retellings, and it’s made me crave more (Any suggestions?!)
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Fairytale Retelling Challenge
- Goodreads Challenge