Book Review: A Thousand Nights

21524446Title: A Thousand Nights
Series: A Thousand Nights #1
Author: E.K. Johnston (Website)
Release Date: 09/06/2017
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Genre: LGBTQA+, Fairy Tale Retelling
Age Group: 16-22
Pages: 328
Source: Library

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Buy It On: Amazon | Barnes and Noble| Book Depository

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.
(Summary from GoodReads.com)

I really enjoyed this book.  Like, so much.  It is a slow-build, masterful work of feminist writing that is well worth the effort it takes to read it.

I’ll be honest. This book makes you work for it.  The plot moves forward slowly, almost languidly.  There is very little action throughout the first three-quarters of the book.  That isn’t what this book is about.  At it’s very core, this book is about women: the bond of love between two sisters, the never ceasing love of a mother for her son, the timid relationship between a bride and her new mother-in-law, the deep friendship between two women that share a husband and children.  It is about communities of women.  It is about the power of women, the crafts they participate in, the work that they take pride in.  It is about the place of women in society, the overlooked strength of women.  I really think the pacing of the book reflects that.  In a lot of ways, A Thousand Nights reminds me of the things the heroine creates within the story: weaved together slowly, with careful hands, without any rush, and with great purpose.  The pace of A Thousand Nights mirrors the crafts and arts women create within the story.

It is beautiful, and stunning.  I have a great desire to search out everything by this writer, because I’m amazed at her craft.  She is extremely talented.  The writing of this book is enthralling, and skilled.

The world-building is subtle, built with great care and a deft hand.  It begins in the desert, in the heroine’s small and very quaint village, and then sprawls outwards.  It spreads to the city, to the qasr, to the market and oasis, to the mountains of iron far on the other side of the desert and beyond.  It has a sturdy foundation, built upon pre-Islamic middle-eastern mythology.  The “demon” that possesses the king is likely based on either an d’jinn or an ifrit (neither term is ever used explicitly, and I think the mythology of the book builds off of these legends, instead of mimicking them, like it builds off of and re-imagines the original story of 1,001 Nights rather than retelling it).  I have very little knowledge and familiarity with Middle-Eastern mythology, yet I settled comfortably into this world.  I understood, easily, the concept of “smallgods” and the magic of this world.  I didn’t need explanation; the story provided everything I needed for me.  I enjoyed the addition of Priests and Skeptics; I may not be as informed as I would like, but I’m well aware that most of our ideas of modern science and math originated in the Middle East hundreds and sometimes thousands of years before they were discovered by Europeans.  A Thousand Nights shows a society that is vast, intelligent, enlightened, advanced, for all that it is not modern, for all that it is not Western.  For all that it is not White, with all the characters but one having dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes.

I had a moment of fear, with the introduction of the White man that marries the heroine’s sister, that we’d have a White Savior on our hands… But, for all that the white man brings the iron metal that saves them, it is merely a tool he delivers to the heroine.  The white man is burnt by the sun, a foreigner that is out of place, described as being child-like and lacking basic knowledge.  His Whiteness is almost a handicap, something he must strive and work at to overcome, the way Blackness or Brownness is often portrayed in Western media.

And, since I haven’t had the chance before now to talk about it, let’s discuss the lack of names.  The only character that gets a specific name is the King, Lo-Melkhiin.  And, really, for ninety-nine percent of the book it isn’t Lo-Melkhinn that is making the decisions, it is the nameless demon possessing him.  The only named character is also the demon’s first victim.  There’s something to that, even if I cannot quite formulate the words.

The namelessness lends to the fairy-tale feeling of the story, lends it whimsy and also the feeling of myth, of legend.  It harkens to countless other stories where there are no names, only titles: the Evil Queen, the Princess, the Brave Knight, the Lady of the Lake, the Dragon, the Charming Prince, etc etc.  But, it also provides an everyman (or, rather, everywoman) aspect to the story.  The Heroine isn’t just any girl.  She’s every girl.  Every girl with a sister she loves more than anything. Every girl with the courage to make a stand.  Every girl with a good heart.  She’s any of us, she’s the potential we all have.  She is what we should all strive to be: good, brave, smart, loyal, kind, cunning, strong.

I have a lot of feelings about this book.  It isn’t perfect, but it made me think and it made me feel, and that’s what books are supposed to do.

If you’ve never read this book, please, do yourself a favor and give it a try.

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