Title: A Thousand Nights
Author: E.K. Johnston
Length: 325 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
When the king comes to her village looking for his three-hundredth wife, she dons a purple gown and sacrifices herself to save her more beautiful sister from the terrible fate that awaits his queens: death in the marriage bed. In turn, her sister promises to make her a smallgod–a minor local deity–while she yet lives. That night, the new queen tells her murderous bridegroom about the sister whose place she took, and somehow, she survives until morning. As the days and nights pass, she begins to unravel the mystery of why the king has murdered three hundred brides, and her sister’s prayers and rituals begin to instill in her the power she needs to save them all.
A Thousand Nights is a retelling of part of “One Thousand and One Nights,” the collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folklore that gave rise to stories like Aladdin. It retells the framing device (the story-within-a-story, if you will), not the tales of Scheherazade themselves. It’s also high fantasy, in that it doesn’t actually take place in ancient Arabia or any other well-defined real-world locale.
World-building is this novel’s great strength. While it is not as thorough as I might have liked–in fact, it’s frustratingly incomplete in some regards–it is nonetheless fascinating and poetical. This is a world in which enough prayers and sacrifices can literally deify a living person; in which henna tattoos have the literal power to protect the wearer; where a girl can dream or sew or speak a thing into reality.
So for all that it’s underdeveloped and at times confusing, I still found the world-building the most compelling and promising aspect of the book.
The characters are, for the most part, unmemorable. Only a few of them have well-defined personalities. They exist to fill up the universe; as bodies to which things can happen. The unnamed MC and narrator is the main exception. She is brave, selfless, and clever, and I was definitely rooting for her.
Part of the reason the characters struck me as so bland and distant was their lack of names. A grand total of three were named (the king, Lo-Melkhiin, and two members of his court). Everyone else was referred to as “[MC’s] father, mother, sister, brother” and sometimes, “father’s father’s father” and so on. It’s a stylistic choice, to be sure…just not one that always works. Anonymous narrators sometimes work really well for me, like in The Historian, but usually the entire cast isn’t anonymous as well.
I had no problem with the plot itself, though it goes pretty far afield from the original for a supposed retelling. It’s the pacing that threw me. Virtually nothing–save dream-sequences and slow-building tension–happens for two hundred pages or more. The climax, though, lasts for about two. It makes about as much sense as you would expect from something so rushed. In fact, the climax and the rushed, paint-by-numbers conclusion ended up lowering my opinion of the book as a whole. The author takes her own sweet time until suddenly, she doesn’t. The book feels lopsided and unsatisfactory as a result.
All the reviews I read gushed about the purple prose, but while I found the writing pretty and technically good, it never blew me away. It’s better than you’ll find in a lot of YA novels and very abstract and dreamlike in places. Otherwise, like the rest of A Thousand Nights, it’s nothing remarkable. Another charming but flawed three-star read.