A Thousand Nights
E. K. Johnston
I’m going to pause my All Queer All The Time review streak to gush (and complain just a little) about this quiet, mesmerizing, feminist “retelling”/not-quite-a-retelling of The Arabian Nights. I’m sure you don’t mind.
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. 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 awakened 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.
[T]he words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own, [and 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.
Yeah, I shortened the synopsis. The full thing gives too much away, I think.
My spoilery critique below has no significant spoilers, but if you want ZERO spoilers, this section is for you.
What is there to love about this book? Well:
- Its slow-burning, quietly tense plot!
- Its intriguing villain!
- Its admirable, sympathetic heroine!
- Its strong feminist message, woven through all aspects of the story (narrative technique, worldbuilding, character interactions, plot, etc.)!
- Its beautiful portrayal of the love between sisters, and love for one’s family!
- Its lovely, lyrical writing style!
But it wasn’t quite a perfect book (what book is?), and the main problems I had with it were:
- Some important events and situations weren’t explained or given context, and even after rereading those sections, I was still confused about exactly what happened. Just a few additional words would’ve been sufficient to help me understand, and I was annoyed not to be given those few words.
- We’re given some insight into the villain’s mindset, history, and intentions, but I felt that it wasn’t nearly enough. Because we only scratch his surface, he wasn’t as terrifying (or even scary) as he could’ve been.
- That quiet tension that I praised above could be a little too quiet. I was never quite bored, but I was rarely on the edge of my seat. I know some (a lot?) of you would find the story’s general lack of EXCITING ACTION yawn-worthy.
- The ending felt very rushed, and wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d have liked. (I think my actual reaction to it was “This is it? Seriously?”)
Flawed, sure—without its feminist message, I’d probably give it three or three and a half stars—but still very much worth reading.
Spoiler Rating: Low
A Slow-Burning, Quietly Tense Plot!
The plot is a slow, contained sort of thing, rather than a zippy adventure or world-shattering romance. It’s very much about a woman trapped in a terrible situation, and struggling to not only survive but to bring an end to her captivity (and the future captivity/deaths of countless other women).
Some readers might be bored by the book’s general lack of flashy, heart-stopping scenes, but I appreciated its carefully built tension and the stifling feeling of containment.
“Okay, it’s an Arabian Nights retelling,” you’re probably thinking, “so it’s probably set in a disgustingly misogynistic culture that’ll make me want to tear my eyes out. No thanks.”
To which I reply: NOPE. I mean, yes, it’s a misogynistic culture, but the book itself doesn’t make the mistake of undervaluing its women. It undermines the general misogynistic attitudes of the culture by:
- Presenting male characters who value the intelligence, independence, and abilities of the women around them,
- Making the villain (and others) learn that women should never be dismissed as powerless,
- Featuring a heroine who utilizes the power of women as she struggles to achieve her ultimate goal. (Yes, that’s odd and vague phrasing, because go read the book.)
The book repeatedly underlines the power of women, even (especially) those nameless and faceless women who are viewed as less than nothing by the men around them. There are a lot of relevant quotes I could offer you, but this one in particular stuck out to me; it’s the villain of the book, Lo-Melkhiin, reflecting on how easy it’s been for him to murder 300 brides, because the men of power around him didn’t care enough to stop him:
None of them wondered how my wives died, save in their darkest dreams and most secret thoughts. As they did with their [magically-improved] crafting, they simply accepted the deaths. The men stopped counting, as did I. No one paid any mind to the line of dark-haired, dark-skinned girls who came to the qasr, and met their end there. They were nameless and faceless under their veils. Sometimes I looked at them; sometimes I touched them. Sometimes I simply burned them, and then rode out for another.
You’ll see a lot of reviewers talk about how genius it is that the book’s heroine is never named, and I totally agree. It’s also perhaps worth mentioning that she’s also faceless, like all of Lo-Melkhiin’s previous brides; she’s never owned a mirror, and doesn’t have a clear idea of what her own face looks like—and as a result, neither does the reader.
This is a book in honor of all the nameless, faceless women who have been and will be forgotten. Holy crap, I love it.
Of course you remember the fiery depths of my rage at The Wrath and the Dawn, aimed primarily at its INFURIATING love story. Well, get your balloons and confetti ready, because guess what: this book prioritizes the narrator’s love for her sister, her family, and her home.
If you’re interested in portrayals of sisterhood, definitely read this book. The bond between two sisters is the driving power throughout this book, and it makes for a beautiful, touching read.
Also fantastic: the stories our narrator tells Lo-Melkhiin at night aren’t the magical dude-adventures of random mythical dudes (as was the case in The Arabian Nights); they’re stories about her own sister and family. By telling stories about her family, she gives us (a) a clearer picture of herself, her backstory, her life, (b) a better sense of the world around her, and (c) a knife-sharp understanding of exactly why she chose to sacrifice herself in the place of her sister. Random dude-stories might’ve (might’ve) been interesting, but they wouldn’t have been able to pull off all three of those significant accomplishments.
Somebody go high-five Johnston for me.
The writing style reminded me vaguely of some of Robin McKinley’s fairy tales; it’s slow, quiet, and vivid. Although the narrator’s daily life in the palace isn’t filled with adventure and angst and terror, the writing style built and maintained enough tension to keep me interested even in the quietest (for some of you, that’ll mean “most boring”) moments.
Also noteworthy: without going overboard on the descriptions, the book manages to provide plenty of brilliant little details about life in this world, and the resulting picture it paints is realistic and complex.
Honestly, it’s not a writing style everyone will enjoy (some people might think it’s too remote or formal-feeling), but it sucked me right in.
I don’t have many complaints, and I’ll keep them vague to avoid spoilers because go read this book.
Occasionally something would happen that the narrator instantly understood but I didn’t—and I’d have to reread the scene a few times to see if I missed something. I never came to a satisfactory answer, because the text didn’t provide quite enough context for me.
Okay, I’ll give you a non-spoilery example. At one point, the narrator is embroidering an image while hanging out with a bunch of women. She isn’t paying attention to her fingers, and is surprised when she realizes everyone is staring at her embroidery with horror. She looks down and sees she’s embroidered a very different scene from the one she intended: it’s a hunting scene, with the hunter (who is clearly Lo-Melkhiin, and who was actually out hunting at the time) about to be injured by an animal. The women, presumably, didn’t know what she had intended to embroider, so they can’t guess she hadn’t meant to make this particular image.
All the women around her freak the fuck out, and I’m over here wondering why.
Sure, the image isn’t pretty, and the subject matter would understandably cause unease—but why the women’s blind terror? Do they think it’s a premonition? Do they think it has the power to make its own image come true, and thus harm Lo-Melkhiin? Or are they just terrified that Lo-Melkhiin will hear about it and respond poorly? I’m missing some key bit of info here.
I struggled with this kind of confusion/annoyance several times throughout the book, and it was incredibly frustrating—especially since my confusion could’ve been prevented by just adding in a few extra words in explanation.
Don’t Rush the Ending
The climax and resolution both felt very rushed, which was especially jarring after the mesmerizing, almost tranquil pace of the story up to that point. It felt almost like a completely different book—one that needed a bit more editing to flesh and smooth and it out. As much as I enjoyed the book overall, the ending wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d expected it to be.
I’m disappointed enough that I’d probably give the book three and a half stars, if I hadn’t enjoyed its feminism so damn much.
Obviously, as a white reader, I can’t speak to how well this book (which was written by a white author) portrays the culture it was drawing from. I did at least appreciate that the culture wasn’t blatantly presented as Relentlessly Misogynistic and Backward, which Middle Eastern cultures are often painted as in fiction—but I’m not in a position to judge whether or not it’s a harmful portrayal.
The lovely Fatima @ NoteablePad had written a comprehensive, joyous five-star review for the book, but her blog has since been deleted (Fatima, I hope you’re doing all right), and the small portion of it is still available on her Goodreads page doesn’t address this issue.
I’ll update this section with new links when I find reviews from more knowledgeable readers.
I liked this book infinitely more than I did The Wrath and the Dawn, but I can see why others feel the opposite. A Thousand Nights is quiet and contained, a story about women and family, whereas The Wrath and the Dawn is all angst! and adventure! and abs! Personally, I prefer the former to the latter.