Title: The Wrath and the Dawn
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Length: 395 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
After her best friend Shiva becomes the latest bride of the Caliph of Khorasan to be killed the morning after her wedding, Shahrzad volunteers to marry him herself. She intends to get revenge for Shiva’s death by discovering and exploiting the Caliph’s weaknesses to end his reign of terror. Shahrzad doesn’t expect to have feelings for her friend’s murderer, however, especially since she left her first love behind when she volunteered, and all too soon, those unexpected and unwelcome feelings begin to compromise all her grand plans.
I must be one of the last people to read this much-hyped retelling of “One Thousand and One Nights.” I’m also, apparently, one of the only people who didn’t swoon over it. Every time I picked it up, I checked to see how many pages were left (and there were always too many). Mayday.
My main problem from the get-go was the heroine Shahrzad, who volunteers to marry the Caliph of Khorasan in order to avenge the murder of her best friend Shiva. The Caliph’s brides are murdered the morning after their weddings with no explanation. Desperate to stay alive in order to discover his weaknesses and kill him, Shahrzad tells him a story on their wedding night and manages to keep him intrigued until dawn, therefore extending her life by a day.
Since her stories aren’t all that interesting, and because never comes across as all that clever or cunning–as you would expect her to be, given her chosen means of survival–it came a relief that Shahrzad only told about two of then. (If you don’t know, the famous Scheherazade told stories for, well, one thousand and one nights before the king finally fell for her and decided to stop killing his wives.)
In fact, she isn’t all that anything except for annoying and incredibly arrogant. Yet all the characters constantly gab about how dangerous and how capable and how very beautiful she is. Her looks–and outfits, hair, and jewelry–are always described in excruciating, unnecessary detail. Her husband the Caliph (whose name is Khalid and who, for some reason, sees something special in her that he didn’t in his previous wives) tells her that:
“You are not weak. You are not indecisive. You are strong. Fierce. Capable beyond measure.”
But is she any of those things? After about a hundred pages, Shahrzad starts feeling a “tightening in her chest” when she’s around her husband (symptomatic of a bad case of instalove), and instead of ever even making an effort to kill him, she just makes out with him while thinking about how she must remember Shiva and she must find out his secrets and she must make him pay! Yawn. Shahrzad talks a good game, but she’s all hot air. It all made her seem pretty “weak” and “indecisive” to me. What do I know, though? She also has a serious attitude/ego problem, because being alive in spite of the odds stacked against her isn’t enough. No, Shahrzad wants to be spoken to with the respect due her sixteen-year-old self!
Her handmaiden gives her a nickname that I think suits her perfectly: “Brat Calipha.”
And did I mention that, aside from being smart-mouthed, Special, and very beautiful, Shahrzad is also a gifted archer? Because of course she is. YA authors, I beg: stop making your “fierce” heroines archers, for the love of God, and not just because it’s becoming a cliche. Archery is actually pretty difficult for most women.
None of the other characters endeared themselves to me, either. Khalid had the–alas, untapped–potential to be more than an emo boy with a high body count. And to the author’s credit, she did try to give him some backstory, albeit too little and too late. Despite the things he’d done, I did feel a bit of sympathy for him given the occasional glimpses the author provided into his tortured soul. Nonetheless, he never came across as fearsome or as a bonafide threat, especially once the instalove took off. (Unlike a lot of reviewers, however, I’m not willing to call him a rapist. Context is important, and presumably when Shahrzad not only consented but volunteered to marry Khalid, she knew what lay in store for her on her wedding night…? I mean, such was the nature of royal wedding nights. Idk, I just don’t think the author wrote it or intended for it to be interpreted as rape. But obviously that is a touchy subject.)
Wait, there’s more: a love triangle! A dull, meaningless, melodramatic love triangle involving three characters whose supposed romances both only ever made me roll my eyes. Again, in the interest of fairness, there are some lovely romantic quotes in this book…but in-context, they become unconvincing and even laughable.
The writing, though ostensibly beautiful, was extremely heavy-handed and so purple. In a story that already drags itself along at an infuriatingly slow pace, the author feels compelled to attach an adjective to every noun and to describe every room, every meal, and every article of clothing and/or piece of jewelry in elaborate detail. From time to time, a particularly well-crafted description, metaphor, or sentence caught my eye, but for the most part, the whole book is weighted down by ornate, flowery writing style. It all struck me as a little pretentious–never a good impression–and I suspect that the author was just trying way too hard. Worse, for all the purple pose, the dialogue tends to be stiff, simplistic, and inorganic. Go figure.
(Also, the author has a real obsession with eyes. Somehow, all characters have magical eyes with the ability convey far more emotion/information than seems humanly possible. Tell me, when was the last time you read what someone was thinking in their “melting” eyes? The ways in and frequency with which eyes are described in this book are both, frankly, juvenile.)
The irony of all this over-descriptive language is that the world-building of The Wrath and the Dawn is quite weak. Over the course of some 400+ pages, very little is revealed about the culture and politics of Khorasan, despite the heroine being its queen and the overzealous use of foreign words (most sans meaningful context clues…and speaking of, since when did “caliph” mean “king of kings”?). Magic is occasionally used, too, but it feels random and almost forced, almost like part of a different story. I never even had a solid grasp of where Khorasan might be, even though the author used real-world place names liberally.
And that brings me to the plot, what little plot there is. After it becomes obvious that Shahrzad and Khalid are in lurve and Shahrzad stops telling him stories (yeah, so much for the retelling part, huh?) things slow to a crawl. I kept reading out of the misguided hope that it would improve and a desire to learn just why Khalid killed his brides. By the time the revelation came, and I was bored and found the answer I had wanted totally unsatisfactory and disappointing (in a “what, that’s it?” kind of way). I didn’t consider be a particularly good explanation for Khalid’s actions. It’s certainly not the justification that Shahrzad seems to treat it as. The plot, such as it is, finally starts going somewhere at that point–over 300 pages in–but again, it’s too little, too late.
It all ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I am really not sure I care enough to pick up the sequel, however, which is a shame.
In short, this book was similar in many ways to Cruel Beauty, but that one did the hate-to-love/girl-seeking-revenge angle (and the world-building and character development and plot…) so much better than this. And as a “One Thousand and One Nights” retelling, I very much preferred A Thousand Nights despite all the reviews I read of it that said, “Oh, well it’s no Wrath and the Dawn!”
By now I should know better than to buy into the hype. I just end up getting burned.