Review – The Archived/The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

A review of The Archived and the Unbound by Victoria Schwab (4/5)

So. I read the Archived on May 14, 2017, and the Unbound on May 14-15, 2017.

According to GoodReads there is a third book, the Returned, but I know that sometimes what’s planned doesn’t happen and Google hasn’t revealed to me the status of this third book (as in, going to happen, or been cancelled.)

Regardless, read these books. Particularly if you are already a fan of Victoria/V.E. Schwab because her imagination and ability to create internally consistent worlds is awesome, and just to see how her writing style and approach have changed and not that much time has passed.

From Amazon with some small edits from me:

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive. Mackenzie Bishop is a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive.  Mackenzie and her family have just moved into the city into an old hotel-turned-apartments the Coronado to run away from their past and the death of Mackenzie’s younger brother. Mackenzie has a new territory to learn, and soon, a mystery to unravel that puts both the world of the Archive and the world of the Outer, our world, at risk.


I’ll admit that in the last year I’ve developed a tendency to be triggered by deaths or incidents that involve car accidents after my friend died in one. It took me a few deep breaths when I first encountered that detail, but I made it through. The loss of Ben, the youngest Bishop, is central to the plot of the Archived, and I appreciate so much the way Schwab writes about the different kinds of grief we experience, and the different ways they can affect us. By the start of the story Mackenzie’s grandfather (Da), who she inherited her Keeper duties from, is also gone. Both those losses were traumatic for Mackenzie and for her family, and watching her process those things and figure out when to let go and when to hold on was really cathartic. The way each member of the Bishop family grieves is also varied, and also, irritating. It’s not hard to side with Mackenzie against her mom, even when you don’t like what Mackenzie is doing either.

The aura of spookiness in both books was a definite favorite feature. Between our world, the Outer, and the Archive, is a realm called the Narrows. Remember that creepy hallway in Beetlejuice with all the doors to the different places and houses? I imagine that it’s kind of like that only maybe less weird shapes to things and less weird glowing green light. Just a dark, dusty hallway full of doors. Where small, violent, reawakened dead children are slowly losing their minds and you have to find them before they do. If that doesn’t give you the creeps, I don’t know what will.

If Schwab needs to brainstorm an idea for another project, I would love for her to write a straight up horror novel. She throws in bits of horror/thriller/morbid/macabre in everything I’ve read by her so far, but I would read the fuck out of a haunted house story written by her. My struggle with a lot of contemporary horror is that it’s gotten gory, and plays a lot more on violence. I want a psychological thriller that’s also firmly a horror story…that’s a lot to ask, but I also think Schwab would totally blow my mind.

I have a weakness for characters named Owen. Ever since Maureen Johnson’s Devilish. It can’t be helped. This Owen is…delicious, on many levels. I can say without spoilers that he is very dynamic, and that dreams are very, very different from reality.

The jury is out on my feelings about Wesley, and will likely stay that way unless there’s a third book. I will say though that summer Wesley, of the spikes, guyliner, and black nails, sounds like my cup of tea. Actually because two things meshed in my brain at once he kind of looks like Dan Howell in my head (danisnotonfire on YouTube. My new crush.) Also soccer player. I mean, Wesley ticks a lot of boxes for me, but I don’t like how secretive he is while also being mad at Mackenzie for being secretive. Like, bro, that’s hella controlling. But given everything Mackenzie has been through, he’s also awesome for her healing process and I know what that’s like. Some people fix what’s broken, even if it’s not forever. Their effect is.

Another recurring Schwab theme that is also present here is younger people “sticking it to the Man” so to speak. There’s a rebellion. A revolution, maybe? And that’s something that comes up in all of her novels – the way things are isn’t good enough, and the individual character is always asking what they can do to change it. Sometimes for selfish reasons, sometimes for altruistic ones, and sometimes killing two birds with one stone. All I will say to that plot in these books is GIVE ‘EM HELL KENZIE.

I rated both of these books a 4/5 on GoodReads – I was totally hooked, loved the main character, loved the concept and the specificity of the rules, and um, good kissing scenes? Haha. Even the most awkward kiss I’ve ever read in a book but also the most realistic to actual teenagers ever.

Review – This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab came out in July 2016. I bought it because her anxiety on Twitter about people buying its sequel overwhelmed me so I bought it and it’s imminently releasing sequel. I read it May 8-13, 2017. It’s good preparation for when Our Dark Duet comes out June 13, 2017.

I think if I keep reading Victoria Schwab, all my top favorite female characters will have been created by her. Because Kate is awesome, and I’ve already pretty much given my entire heart to Lila Bard.

From Amazon:

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.


One of the things that sets Schwab apart from anyone else I read is the depth of emotions her characters experience, and how dynamic they are. Her characters always have the power to surprise me but not in ways that seem out of step with the plot, or with everything you already know about them. They are as real as people, and that’s such a unique talent. Kate and August, as well as some of the more periphery characters like Ilsa, Leo, Callum, and Henry all have more to them, and more to understand. Even some of the smallest characters, like Emily Flynn, have these tiny touches of detail that tell you more than just their name and their relationship to the main characters.

Kate Harker is awesome. I love that she begins the story thinking there’s only one way to be tough, or one way to take control, and learns that there’s more than that. Kate isn’t as cold as she likes to pretend, and ultimately that will prove to be a positive thing for her. Still, I might be more afraid to meet Kate in a dark alley than any Corsai or Malchai.

I will admit it took me a bit to get into this book – it’s a very different world, and there is a lot of history and rules that are alluded to that you have to try and parse out. I was only reading 1-2 chapters a night which is unusual for me, but once the friendship between Kate and August is established I was hooked in. It’s definitely the kind of story that needs to do some exposition before it gets to the main action of the story, and even if it’s interesting it doesn’t always make the story move quickly. Still, it was break-neck pace once things really got going and I was so concerned for those two and the people in their lives. I read the majority of the book today, in my hammock. It was wonderful.

I’m totally obsessed with the mythology of Verity. I think I’m just obsessed with Schwab’s brain and the mythology she creates in general. Back to the point – the Corsai, Malchai, and Sunai are a symptom, not the problem. We learn a little bit about where they came from and how they were created, but there are more questions than answers. There are more things to be discovered about what role they really have to play, and what direction the world is heading in. War has happened, war is inevitable, and there’s no guarantees that everyone will survive. There’s no guarantee that humanity is even supposed to. Because ultimately this is a story about what makes us human, and what happens when we forget what those things are. What happens when we fail to see the humanity in others. Let’s think about humanity like this: if you don’t use it, you lose it.

You know why YA dystopian is a thing? Because teenagers see the world in black and white, they see NOW, and when you’re fighting the system that’s what you need to be able to do. This is another series that makes clear how little the adults see the landscape of their world. How much easier they find it to sacrifice people, and kids don’t see things that way. I cannot wait to see what Kate and August make of the mess the adults have made, and how they might find a way to save the people that can be saved.

Overall I give this a 4/5 because it took me a bit to get into it, but once it hooked me I was all in. If you like supernatural mythology, ridiculously well-written characters, then you should absolutely read this. I am really ready for Our Dark Duet!

Review: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett

You’ve Got Mail modernized, with badass teenagers. Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett (5/5)

The stars really aligned for me to read this book on Saturday (April 15), as there was a Doctor Who reference about midway through, and it was also an excellent distraction as I waited for the 10th series premiere. I have not been excited about a companion in quite some time as I am about Bill – she’s going to be amazeballs.

Anyway. Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett was released April 4, 2017 – I purchased it on April 3,2017 because someone (and I can’t figure out who) retweeted it or responded to Jenn’s tweet, and I was like – You’ve Got Mail retelling? I AM IN FOR THIS. I love that movie so much, and I still cry all the tears.

From Amazon:

Classic movie buff Bailey “Mink” Rydell has spent months crushing on a witty film geek she only knows online by “Alex.” Two coasts separate the teens until Bailey moves in with her dad, who lives in the same California surfing town as her online crush.

Faced with doubts (what if he’s a creep in real life—or worse?), Bailey doesn’t tell Alex she’s moved to his hometown. Or that she’s landed a job at the local tourist-trap museum. Or that she’s being heckled daily by the irritatingly hot museum security guard, Porter Roth—a.k.a. her new arch-nemesis. But life is whole lot messier than the movies, especially when Bailey discovers that tricky fine line between hate, love, and whatever-it-is she’s starting to feel for Porter.

And as the summer months go by, Bailey must choose whether to cling to a dreamy online fantasy in Alex or take a risk on an imperfect reality with Porter. The choice is both simpler and more complicated than she realizes, because Porter Roth is hiding a secret of his own: Porter is Alex…Approximately.


As always, summaries do so little justice to the books they represent, because good books cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. This book, while hilarious and delightful, is not light or even fluffy. This isn’t about romance as much as it’s about figuring out how to still connect with people despite pain, trauma, and responsibilities. It’s about how complicated our family ties really are, and that your family makes you into an adult – for better or worse. This book was great.

One of the things I struggle with in contemporary YA is that the teens often jump to conclusions about the adults, or misinterpret events in such a way that even the reader is like – what is wrong with you? I love that this book doesn’t do that, even a little bit. There’s no ambiguity to the adults – if they aren’t direct, someone around the characters comes out and clears things up in some way. It doesn’t mean all the adults are good and good parents and like the teenagers, just that you don’t jump to conclusions.

Recently, I read an article about the Hate U Give and about how Angie Thomas brought family back to YA – I think this is another example of that. Family and familial relationships are integral to this story, and to Bailey’s journey. It also clearly demonstrates that some people just fail at being a parent, and sometimes it’s because they have to take care of themselves as an individual human when they have the space to do so.

This next thing I’m going to try and talk about without spoilers. Bad stuff has happened to both Bailey and Porter. What happened to Bailey is probably my greatest fear, as someone who often holds people accountable for their actions and is part of separating them from their education, that’s the shit I have nightmares about. And I’ll be honest, when the storyline was first hinted at I thought it was going to be too over the top, or too much for a teen contemporary romance. But it wasn’t. It was impactful and delivered well and at the exact right moments in the story. It’s also sadly realistic for our world and it’s much easier to deny that than accept that it’s not such a crazy thing to include in a novel. It’s not even an extreme example. So yeah, some dark stuff happens but we get to see a teenage girl successfully working through her response to trauma. We also get to see her help someone else deal with their own, and it’s such a REAL moment. Like a punch in the feels kind of moment, but you’re okay with the bruise.

Believe me, this book is not light, and I’m going to keep saying that and I mean it as a compliment. The highest of compliments. It has very cute moments and Porter sounds very sexy, but some romance feels that it’s a slight shift away from reality because love is the center of the world. That’s not the case in Alex, Approximately – there’s so much more going on for both of these characters. You see them struggle, adapt, change, and realize things about themselves. Bailey is a great character to follow because you can both empathize with her, and want her to stretch and be more, or be who she wishes she was.

The best way I can sum up this novel is REAL. The characters and their experiences are such an accurate and sharp slice of real life. There’s teenagers doing sexy things and talking about it and being smart and figuring out what they want, and how to explore becoming a sexual being. Without being pornographic or exploitative. There’s teenagers falling in love and making mistakes and being scared and truly, deeply loving the nerd thing they are into. It’s teenagers thinking about the future without the cliche version of the “pressure from parents” plot. It’s people losing things and changing dreams and trying to protect the people they love. It’s people recognizing that we all have darkness inside, but we have light, too.

I give Alex, Approximately a 5/5 because I was hooked the entire time and read the book in one sitting. After the Doctor Who premiere I was going to go to bed, but I didn’t. I stayed up and finished this book. I was expecting a fun, romantic teen version of a fairly light film, and got something that was fun and romantic, but deep in scope. Definitely read this.

Review/Opinion: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Read this book. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (5/5)

This will eventually be a review of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, the current and deserved ruler of the NYT Bestseller’s List. There are books that come along and are earth-shaterringly relevant and timely, and this is it. This book is now, this book is important, and it needs to be read with an open mind and an open heart. It is a perspective and worldview that might be unfamiliar, but it is one that more people need to read, hear, and believe.

From Amazon:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

But first, let’s talk about me.

If you want to give my job a fancy title, I’m a civil rights investigator. Narrowing it down, I work in the field of Title IX, which is a federal statute to respond to and prevent discrimination based on sex/gender/sexual orientation/gender identity/gender non-conformity in the higher education setting. Even more particularly, I respond to complaints of sexual harassment, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and stalking made by a student. I spend a lot of my time talking about consent, rape culture, and healthy relationships.

It means that justice, access, and equity are huge values in my life. I also believe in an intersectional approach to my work, which means that even if my job description says my role is about gender, I look at someone’s life and how all their identities factor into their response, as well as how all of their identities inform what and why something happened to them. I can never let myself be pigeonholed into the thought “this is only about their gender” because rarely is that true. It also means that I am really intentional in being aware and informed about multiple identities and experiences so that I can find the best way to help a person tell their story, and communicate impact. There is so much about the work that I do that was impacted by THUG.

It reminded me of everything that I am fighting for and against, of who it is I am meant to take care of, and who I am meant to raise up so that they can be heard because I am not the speaker, I am the platform. The fact that this story is being lifted up makes it worth it to get up in the morning because I can hope against hope, for the first time in months, that I am not just banging my head against a wall. Change is coming, and change is here.

Okay, back to the book. Things I want to make clear from the start: I believe police violence is a problem. I know and work with some truly amazing police officers, but their role does not mean they get an exception for killing someone. It doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. It doesn’t mean there is not a cultural indoctrination within the law enforcement community to demonize colored bodies (and even officers of color buy into this indoctrination). We are not perfect, they are not perfect. There is room for progress, and a greater need to protect people of color from unfair enforcement and violence. BLACK LIVES MATTER – all lives matter, but we are failing people of color by refusing to acknowledge that they are disproportionately victims of violence. This is fact, not open for discussion, sorry not sorry.


So on that point, please recognize that Starr’s experiences are not a stretch of the imagination. The fiction contained in these pages is truer than you might know. If you are questioning the #ownvoices movement, this should prove their point to you.

I love Starr. I love that she is so self-aware, but that doesn’t make her perfect or easy, it makes her human.  It makes her a trustworthy narrator, and that was essential to this story. Because you trust Starr so much that others doubting her feels more than personal, it feels political. That is one of the true triumphs of this novel is making the personal political, and making you confront how that might be operating in your life. There’s a lot of messages, a lot of purpose and moral, written into the language and fabric of the narrative but it’s delicate. It makes you step away from the stories you’ve seen in the news, and instead stick with an individual person and their experience. By humanizing the one, it gives you the opportunity to humanize all.

The family dynamics are also easy to relate to – inter-generational conflict, the sins of the parents being visited on the children, how family expands and contracts, the ways in which we grow and change with our siblings, and how much they influence our decisions and reactions. This family, the Carters and their extended ties, are so tight and so beautiful. I loved reading about this family, because I could see my life and my family reflected there, and I could understand and follow the logic of their decisions, even when they were scary and might not work out. Lisa and Maverick are good parents and a good relationship, and I get why Starr called them her OTP.

The complexity of friendships for teenagers was also a wonderful aspect of AT’s writing. When you’re a teenager it can be incredibly difficult to confront problematic behavior or to risk losing friends because you disagree or don’t follow, or knowing that you drifted from or failed someone because it was easy to do it. That’s reality, and watching Starr maneuver those situations might help others – I think she’s braver than your average person (which is a comment I think Starr would find annoying) but it was also clear that her bravery influenced others. The bystander effect is real, y’all.

Some of my favorite things: Starr’s mom, Lisa; any and all of the Harry Potter references (the House gang theory is one I have believed in for years); all the times I had to Google shoes so that I had a visual; having an excuse to play the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song repeatedly; DeVonte (he might be my favorite, after Starr); that family is more than blood and titles; the only act of violence in the novel I condoned and in fact, shouted out loud in excitement (it’s a punch in the face that is…magnificent and frankly, earned. My anti-violence inner-self is a work in progress, friends), THE LAST LINE ON PAGE 290.

I cannot wait to read whatever AT publishes next. Her writing pulls you in right from the first line – it was the kind of work that didn’t provide unnecessary details, but focused on what I needed to know to FEEL like I was there, both physically and emotionally. I felt like I inhabited Starr’s world and saw through her eyes – there are so many emotional blows and I f***ing felt them all, but I also felt her joy and laughter, her moments of recovery, and her moments of self-forgiveness. I know that a book is dynamic when my husband can’t keep up with my emotions – one second I’m crying (from both sadness and happiness in this one) and then I’m laughing, and there was also a lot of swearing.

I loved a lot of the characters in this book, but seriously Starr made my top 5 characters, all time. She’s still beat out by Tally, but Tally saved my life, so it’s kind of hard to let that crown shift. Maybe tied for first.

5/5 read, no question. GO GET THIS NOW. REQUEST IT AT YOUR LIBRARY. Bring it to your school, your community, your organizations. Let the conversation happen.

 

On Jenny Lawson, Wishes, and Grief

There are two things I carry with me from Jenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess.) The first is the importance of perspective and picking your battles, and in my more recent history, a realization I came to about wishes.

The perspective thing is what changed how I see wishes.

At the end of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny is sitting with her sister talking about how they give up their wishes for their kids – when they blow out the candles on their birthday cake, they wish things for their children. The first time I read the book, that seemed like a great idea, and something I’d likely do if/when I have children. The thing is, I read that book a year ago and there hasn’t been an occasion, even an incidental one, that I made a wish. Yes, I had a birthday and blew out candles but it was kind of a crazy birthday this year and I didn’t actually make a wish because of performance anxiety, even inside my own head.

Today when I was moving the clocks an hour forward (*shakes fist angrily at daylight savings time*), I happened to look at my phone at 11:11. I like wishing on 11:11 – it’s the most random thing you can encounter that it has been arbitrarily decided you can make a wish on. The first wish that came to me was an impossible wish. It wasn’t even a hope or a dream, it was straight up the kind of wish you shouldn’t make because it hurts you just making it because of the sheer impossibility.

I wished my friend was alive.

I’m not saying that I would do or give anything for her to be alive again; I don’t think she’d like that. It would be very season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she would be Buffy. She’s been gone a year and her loss has given me a freaking lot of perspective. I had an opportunity to look at our friendship and figure out why it worked so well and was so enduring when so many other friendships were not. I’m trying to implement those lessons in other relationships, figure myself out, and figure out how to carry or let go of the weight of my grief.

It’s this grief that has given me perspective on wishes.

There’s a very good chance that when I have children I will give them my birthday wishes. But those random encounters – 11:11, a shooting star, the wish you make when you blow away an eyelash – I cannot see a time in which my instinctive wish won’t be the impossible one.

One of my new mantras in life is that this is all an exercise in perspective. Right now, this is mine. And maybe when I figure things out, that perspective will change because it’s allowed to change. For the time being though, I’m going to avoid wishes.

A Rant About Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

This isn’t about Miriam, it’s about Harriet, but Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is killer (ha!) (4/5)

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig was published September 2015, and I read it February 16-18, 2017. It is the first book in the Miriam Black series – a brief summary:

Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Yeah, yeah way to go Chuck, great book. It was a 4/5 read for me – some parts were slow going and I’m taking a point off because I really want to hate Ashley but I mostly don’t. I am, however, deeply amused that a book character shares my name and was excited that for once it was a dude. I am a lady, but I know the origins of my name and think men need to reclaim it.


This book is dark, humorous, gory, and pretty graphic. You know how Stephen King sometimes writes really horrifically specific descriptions of bad things happening to genitals? It’s like that, but whole bodies and brains and emotions. But you’re also laughing and the tension is built SO FANTASTICALLY, especially the Interludes of the Interview. It took all of my self-control not to skip ahead and read those parts to see the whole sub-plot. There was also kind of a Pulp Fiction vibe, and I dug it.

I’m also super grateful to Chuck for the Interludes idea, because it really helped with something I was stuck on in my own novel.

Anyway, this isn’t really a review of Blackbirds, I just want to have a kind of spoilery rant about the character of Harriet.

Honestly, just thinking “carpet noodle” fills me with fury! Righteous, glorious fury! Not at Wendig, at Harriet. Wendig is awesome for this.

It just blew my mind that part of how Harriet became Harriet involved murdering a man because down with the fucking patriarchy…only to be manipulated and trapped under the thumb of another man. Only to be willing to disobey his orders to keep him all to herself – Harriet was oppressed by a man, and then controlled by one, and it’s like she couldn’t even see it. She couldn’t see that she was LEASHED! Ugh, even though Harriet was totally amoral and is not a person I would ever like to meet, the stunted possibility of her character just crushed me. Part of me was like – “Yeah, that’s right, carpet noodle, because once again you’re losing everything for a man who doesn’t even appreciate you!”

Yeah. So. You should read this book and then rant with me in the comments.

 

Review – A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

The demon is king, and the demon has married and killed each of his 300 wives. She is the wife who will survive. A review of A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston (4.5/5)

I’ll admit that I’ve been riding the book review struggle bus so far this year – I have literally been writing and re-writing my review of Caraval for 14 days.

But I think A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston has broken through my funk. I read A Thousand Nights mostly in my bathtub on the evenings of February 11-14, 2017.

You would not believe how much copper-colored stuff I have.


Some of the Summary (from Goodreads):

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.

As always, these summaries fall so far short of the truth of the story, but it’s also so hard to make a summary that doesn’t give away too much.

Things to know before reading: this book is not like other books. There are definitely pre-conceived notions about how to tell a story, and how to tell this kind of story, and I need you to throw those things out the window. There are pre-conceived notions of what a fairy tale is, and how to tell it. There are pre-conceived notions about how retellings should work, and I need you to forget those too. And I’m a person who went into this book with a little skepticism, given how fiercely I love Renee Ahdieh’s Shahrzad in the Wrath and the Dawn. But if you open the door, Johnston will lead you down a dark and magical path.

Things I loved: few of the characters have names, and the only ones named are the men. Rather than have this give the men priority or power, it is almost a weakness. The women are identified by their works or their relationships, and it is their work and relationships that is the source of their power. I loved that I do not know our narrator’s name because you feel like you are her, and she is you.

This book definitely has a Feminist Agenda™ – the demon inside Lo-Melkhiin can pull great works from men, but when he tries to use his power to light a fire in the women, it leads to mess and chaos because ultimately he does not understand the women’s work or their power. Women’s work and power, and their roles in the balance of it, are often overlooked or unnoticed. Our narrator forces Lo-Melkhiin to look, and upon seeing, it becomes power he wants. It is the power of the women, of their bonds with each other and their desire to protect one another, that ultimately gives our narrator her gift, the only power that might defeat the demon. This is the story of sisters, mothers, teachers, and friends. While our narrator is technically married the entire time, it is not a love story. It’s the story of a war. And how war can be won with Girl Power©.

I also loved the precision of the language – it’s not that long of a book, and while I wouldn’t necessarily describe the writing as poetic, it’s specific. As the characters must weigh their words carefully, and consider the many meanings, so does Johnston. Space and words are not wasted on description or being buried inside the narrator’s thoughts. As she must be hyper-vigilant in her care and awareness with her words, we experience the same with the specific choices of Johnston. I was so bummed not to have my tabs with me because there were so many passages or lines that I wanted to mark. I guess I’ll have to read it again!

I am really curious now about Spindle – it’s not quite a sequel, more of a same universe later in time story – and if it will be written in the same style, and have the same kind of language and pacing. I almost hope that it doesn’t, as I think Johnston is quite inventive.

Also, the brief sections from the mind of the demon could be very disturbing. As someone who loves the creepy stuff, that little turn into the mind of the monster instead of the survivor was the chill I needed. It kept me motivated to keep going.

And, to be fair, some of the things that weren’t awesome: the pacing can be a little slow, and it takes a bit to get into the story and understand what’s going on. Surprisingly, it doesn’t get that confusing when no one has a name but sometimes I did have to go back and check if we were talking about her mother, or her sister’s mother, and I have no idea how many brothers she actually has. It’s worth sticking it out with the slow pacing and getting into the meat of the story – the beginning is necessary to understand the change being wrought in our narrator.

Overall, I give A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston a 4.5/5 – a half off because I almost gave up. I promise, you have not read a book like this, and you really should. I liked it enough that I have added her other works to my list of books to acquire. I already own Spindle (how can you not buy it just for the gorgeous craftsmanship?), but I also want to particularly get Exit, Pursued By A Bear as one, it’s relevant to my day job, and two, I think Johnston would do it’s story justice. And the title is taken from one of the best stage directions in the history of theater that perfectly describes when you’re trying to do the right thing and it all goes to hell.

My next read is Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, and after that I’ll be getting to Spindle. I’m also doing a readalong of A Darker Shade of Magic!