“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 back 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 in its place. 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 sets and rises, 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. The words she speaks to him every night are given strange life of their own. She makes things appear. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to rule of a monster.”
Ok, so I have to admit that I went into this book with the highest of hopes. After reading The Wrath and the Dawn earlier this year (and being massively disappointed by it), I desperately wanted this A Thousand and One Nights retelling to be amazing. And in many regards, it was.
A Thousand Nights is, at a very fundamental level, an ode to women and the strength of the bonds between them. Women are the ones who get stuff done in this book – and it’s largely the reason why I enjoyed this story so much. The reader never learns the name of the main character/narrator, or the name of any woman, for that matter. For me, it symbolized the fact that women have been largely written out of or diminished in history, and that any woman could have stood up and done what the women of this story did. To be entirely honest, I hadn’t even realized that I didn’t know the narrator’s name until nearly halfway through the story. Even though I don’t know their names, I know those women. Our narrator, her sister, their mothers – they are all so well sculpted by the text that I had a clear idea of them in my head while reading, both their images and personalities.
Johnston’s writing in A Thousand Nights is beautiful, with lyrical passages that caught me off guard with their rich descriptions. The world building was equally wonderful, and the culture and history Johnston presents are truly immersive.
That being said, I did have some issues with A Thousand Nights, mainly regarding the “magic” system. It’s not really clear what possessed Lo-Melkhiin (that’s not a spoiler, you find out pretty much right away), other than some demonic spirit-thing. I definitely would have appreciated a bit more explanation there. The narrator’s “powers,” while interesting and well described, felt a bit…too convenient. At times it felt like a heavy-handed plot device, and that happened rather unfortunately often. I did, however, really enjoy the concept of “smallgods” and that through the love and devotion of a loved one, a person could become a smallgod and develop these powers. The scenes when the reader realizes how much work the women in the narrator’s family have done while she’s been at court are powerful.
Personally, one of my favorite aspects of A Thousand Nights may be what others take issue with: there is no romance in this novel. And why would there be? The women in this story are too busy saving the day. The narrator knows that Lo-Melkhiin is possessed, and she is too strong in her resolve to be wooed by pretty words. Lo-Melkiin, for that matter, is not the type of demon-possessed king to do any wooing. (take note, The Wrath and the Dawn!).
A Thousand Nights was a powerful, beautiful read that surpassed my expectations. From the lyrical prose to the strength of female characters, this book was a really lovely read. If you’re interesting in reading a One Thousand and One Nights retelling, this should be the one you pick up.
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.