Rating: 4/5 ☕☕☕☕
Last week I reviewed The Wrath and The Dawn by Renee Ahdeih, a retelling of the classic One Thousand and One Nights story, and I found myself having a rather negative unpopular opinion about it. Deciding that it would be best if TWATD and I parted our ways before our relationship could become more toxic, I chose to try my luck with E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights instead. And I have a lot to say about it.
The Writing: The thing about A Thousand Nights is that it has a very elegant prose that is bound to appeal to fans of purple prose, and the narration itself takes you back to days when people still had used the stars for navigation. This is a book that is not simply a retelling of a fairytale, but actually reads like a classic fairytale too. It’s more literature than YA usually is, and I loved that about E. K. Johnston’s writing. Not only was her world building incredibly vivid, but her storytelling skills reminded me of why I had fallen in love with the original One Thousand and One Nights, which is exactly what a good retelling should do in my opinion. The descriptions of desert life combined with the almost cult-like magical elements in the story, and the references to the myths of djinns, it all tied up really well with the narration style.
Another thing that I loved about this book: the story follows a style similar to the original One Thousand and One Nights, and by that I mean there is a story within a story within another story. If you have read the original fairy tale and loved it, then you are probably gonna enjoy that style but if you are not very familiar with the Arabian Nights then this form of storytelling is bound to make you cry. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like the legendary Queen Scheherazade herself was telling me her story, and that was one of the things that earned this book two coffee cups (read stars) from me.
There’s also something that I want to mention right away–unlike in any of the books I have ever read, we never find out the names of any of the characters (especially the women’s) except the antagonist’s, Lo-Melkhin. We never even get to find out the name of our protagonist, and while I understand why it made many readers feel confused and made it difficult for them to relate with the MC, I couldn’t help but think it was a creative and a subtle way to send a very feminist message to the readers–that the worth of women have always been so unrecognized in history that they may as well be nameless. Even more importantly, I thought it was a unique way of emphasizing how women are rarely credited for their bravery–because in this story, someone who had always been absolutely ordinary all her life had saved the world, but because it was a woman who did the saving, her story had been retold over and over to suit the fancies of men who could not accept that a woman had brought an end to a monster’s reign.
The Plot: Plot-wise, this book was very slow paced, and lacking in a lot of action. In fact,the story is so slow that if I hadn’t been under a lot of stress at the time when I picked up this book, I would have had a very difficult time to continue reading it. However,that doesn’t necessarily mean that the plot had nothing to offer. The plot of this mostly points out the worth and value of women in a very indirect and subtle way. The focus on how women were given tasks that kept them indoors, the way women were not meant to be concerned with state affairs (a tradition eventually broken by the protagonist by the end of the book) and how women were so underappreciated as to be considered a “burden” and a sacrifice worthy of saving trade and other family members, all of these were integral to the plot and a reminded that in the past society had very little respect or concern or came to women. In a literary sense, this book was advocating women rights through a tale of magic and mythical creatures, and that was what I loved about it.
There was a bit of focus on magic and myth, which made me want to keep reading, but we do not really get that much of an explanation about how the protagonist got her powers. I did love the references to desert myths and the religion of the desert people that gave the narrator her powers. I also loved that the writer used the myths of djinns which is familiar territory for me–in Islam, djinns are considered to be creatures of a parallel universe who could be both good or evil, just like humans–however in traditional Arabian myth they are considered evil creatures. Not only did it bring more diversity and showed how well the writer had studied this foreign culture, but it also added to the mystical vibe of the story. So as a fantasy book, this A Thousand Nights worked really well for me.
There is absolutely no romance in this story, so if you are hoping to get even a whiff of lovey-dovey stuff between the protagonist and Lo-Melkhin, you better not read it. I personally thought it was great; as much as I love romance as a subplot in YA I do believe it is overrated at times, so this was really refreshing. Instead of watching two main characters fall in love, in this book, we watch two characters learn to respect each other and treat each other as equals–and that was what really made me love Lo-Melkhin and our unnamed protagonist as a couple.
To make up for the lack of romance, the writer focuses instead on a different kind of love–family love–and this was one of the biggest reasons why I loved this book. Frankly speaking the love that the protagonist had for her sister and her family, and the way they loved her in return made up for the missing romance. There was one scene in particular that made me teary-eyed: the scene where the protagonist’s father and her brothers comes to rescue her. I know that it is to be expected, after all what kind of father is okay knowing her daughter has volunteered to be a serial killer’s wife? But when you think of the time and place the story is set in, you can’t help but appreciate how much the father loved his daughter. In a time when daughters were considered a burden, in a place where surviving was so difficult that men were willing to sacrifice their daughters to keep trade alive in order to save the rest of their family members, this protagonist’s father refused to accept his daughter’s fate and together with his sons he made all the other fathers and brothers realize how important their daughters were, that they were important enough to rebel against the most powerful man in their land. This sort of devotion and love towards family is so seldom seen in YA–only a few months ago me and few other readers were discussing how family members played such a small role in the lives of MCs in YA, and how parents never seemed to have that much interest in what their kids were up to. A Thousand Nights broke this cliche, and did so in such a touching manner, that I cannot help but give this book another coffee cup for this reason.
The Characters: I really love our protagonist, and while she was not completely like the narrator of the original classic, I did find several resemblance between them. Our protagonist is a strong YA character, but she’s strong in a way that is different from your usual definition of strong. She has absolutely no fighting skills, she does not whip up boys or speak with sass or even do anything that is traditionally considered “badass”…and yet, she is strong. How? She is strong because of her intelligence, which helps her figure out why Lo-Melkhin suddenly turned into a misogynist serial killer. She is strong because of her determination to put an end to a rule of tyranny. She is strong because of her devotion towards her family and sister, and she is strong because she does not shy away from doing the right thing, the moral thing, even if it means she would have to remain a prisoner to a monster. She is strong, because instead of waiting for all the men to do something about saving her, (which the protagonist’s father and brothers did do, mind you), at the end of the day, she was the one who did the saving.
Lo-Melkhin himself was also a character who really intrigued me, though we did not really see much of him except for the rare times when we saw from his perspective. It is obvious that he is and has always been a good man, but I also enjoyed the POV that showed why he was doing the evil that he was doing. Frankly speaking, those POVs had given me goosebumps, but it added to the whimsical, magical narration of the story and also made things far more interesting.
The supporting characters also play important roles–in fact, I cannot recall a single character who did not have anything to contribute to the story. Although most of them were unnamed, including the protagonist’s family members and the people at Lo-Melkhin’s court, they were all well developed, very likeable and had a strong enough purpose to make recurring appearances throughout the book.
The Ending: No book is a great book without a great ending. Admittedly, all of the action was sort of hurriedly packed in at the very end of the book, but despite this, the writer concludes the story with the same fanciful and elegant manner with which she began the story. In a sense, the ending was bittersweet, because although the MC finally receives the honor and respect she deserves, it is clear that because men cannot accept that a woman had made the world safe, the truth of her story and struggles will eventually be retold and changed until it is a completely different story from what really happened. Not only was this ending realistic, but I liked how it also made you realize that we will never really know the truth behind the fairy tales we grew up reading, that we will never really know if magic ever really existed, simply because there are somethings mankind fails to understand and so they change the truth into something that it is easier for them to believe.
To conclude, I would say this was a great book whose only flaw is its snail pace. And for this reason, even though I definitely recommend adding this to your TBR, I also recommend reading this when you are too busy to read fast-paced action-packed book and need a slow-paced page turner instead.