A Thousand Nights – E.K. Johnston – Disney Hyperion – Published 6 October 2015
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.
This is a clever and beautiful story, spun out of simple story threads and woven together to create a rich tapestry that sings.
When King Lo-Melkhiin’s group travels to her town, she knows that he will hardly resist the beauty of her sister, and that in being chosen as his bride her sister will go to her death, just like so many girls before her. And so, she does what she can by offering herself in her sister’s place. At the King’s qasr she is stunned to survive not only the first night, but each that follows. As she spins her stories, her power grows and with it her knowledge of the castle and the people within it, as well as Lo-Melkhiin himself and what plagues him.
This book reminded me of Gail Carson Levine’s fairytale retellings, particularly Ever, in the way it was written and the great layers of depth to the story. Gail Carson Levine is one of my favourite authors and, in my opinion, the writer of the best fairytale retellings, so that is some compliment.
A Thousand Nights is clever. I think that I may often overuse that word in my reviews, but in this case I really mean it. Everything in this book has a meaning, a message and yet it is neither preachy nor ridiculous. No, this is not a quick romp or fun retelling, nor a book with action or romance as its draw. I struggled initially to connect both with the characters and with the storytelling, but it is so worth it to continue. And in the end I couldn’t read the pages fast enough in my quest to discover what would happen.
There are so many messages one can take from this book. Messages about power, or women or war or even good and evil. But the message I like the best is how hope can be retained and how so many anonymous or insignificant few can band together and with that comes the ultimate strength.
If you are looking for a strong heroine then look no further than the protagonist of A Thousand Nights. At first she simply intends to save her sister, but ends up saving far more. Sacrifice is her love language, and with humility comes great power. She believes her only true skill lies in storytelling, but it becomes a power far greater than she could have imagined. She is brave and wary but determined to never show fear.
The writing style in A Thousand Nights is unique and it so well suits the setting of this book. At times I felt that I could feel the desert’s heat or was eating flatbread and olives right along with the characters. The setting is so vibrant, the colours and tastes and smells are woven seamlessly woven into the tale. But this is ultimately a story, even a story about a story. The whole thing feels like a tale you might hear told around a fire in a long-ago age. And as our heroine’s power lies in her storytelling, the writing style works so well to convey the tone of mystery and shadows and that ‘I’ve just got to hear what happens next’ thing that makes good stories great. The majority of the book is told in first person by the protagonist, with a few sections reserved for the unnamed evil that controls Lo-Melkhiin, which helps to offer the reader a little more insight into what is really occurring.
As others have pointed out in their reviews, and as one might notice even from the summary, none of the characters aside from Lo-Melkhiin are named. Obviously this is by design and conveys its own message, but I thought it worked so well both with the writing style and with the formality and customs of the setting.
Ultimately, I was vastly surprised by this book. With its great depth, enchanting storytelling and a setting that picks you up and carries you to a desert far away in an ancient land, A Thousand Nights is at once familiar and strange. If you are looking for a retelling that is a little different and a lot creative and thought-provoking, then A Thousand Nights is the book for you.
The publishers provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Young adult fiction.
Genre: Fantasy – retellings.
Themes: Magic, family, sisters, power and strength, divinity and prayers, marriage, royalty, kingdoms, feminism.
Reading age guide: Ages 14 and up.
Advisory: Sexual references, such as the promise of sharing a marriage bed, no implied scenes or details. Violence, hunting and killing animals, death, magical battles.
Published: 6 October 2015 by Disney Hyperion.
Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook. 336 pages.