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.
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!