A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
I have to admit, I was wary of this book. The cover is so stunning that I picked it up almost every time I saw it in a bookstore, but the cover on The Wrath and the Dawn was gorgeous too, and that retelling of Arabian Nights made me more furious than enchanted. Could a retelling of this story exist in YA without romanticising or glossing over the fact that the king murders hundreds of girls? Several people told me yes. You guys recommended it to me again and again, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week. And then read it almost all in one go.
A Thousand Nights is a beautiful book. It more than lives up the beauty of its cover. In this retelling of Arabian Nights, Lo-Melkiin has had three hundred wives, and three hundreds wives have died. Laws now state that he must take one wife from every village before he is allowed to return to any one place to choose a second. So when he comes to the village of our story’s protagonist, she makes sure that she wins his attention, in order to save her sister. She expects to die immediately. But night after night, she continues to survive.
This is an absolutely lush novel about the hidden, often unseen power of women. I’m not sure how much I can say without being too spoilery, but a great deal of the plot draws on this idea that woman have a great deal of overlooked power, and that they have power, in part , because they’re overlooked. The plot hinges on information gathered while quietly sewing in the corner, on news women spread to one another, on the power of having your facial expressions concealed by a veil. It’s about the songs and stories that the women tell, the protections they grant one another, and the worship that they perform. It’s a story of quiet power, subtle power, in contrast to the foot-stomping masculine strength of Lo-Melkiin and the demon that possesses him and drives him to kill all his wives.
It’s only as I come to write this, by the way, that I’m realising a key detail about the book. It’s written in first person, so I got completely pulled into the protagonist’s perspective, and never realised that we don’t actually learn her name. We don’t learn her sister’s name, or her mother’s name, or her sister’s mother’s name. We don’t learn the name of the king’s mother, or the protagonist’s henna artist. In fact, the only names we learn are Lo-Melkiin’s and the people that he names himself. Everyone else is described in terms of role. This echoes traditions of storytelling, the idea of mixing a forceful character with generalised anonymity, so well that that I didn’t even notice, but it also reflects this idea of unseen power, of the things that Lo-Melkiin doesn’t notice being the things that will bring him down. The common people in general, yes, but particularly the women, common and uncommon, who he never focusses on long enough to see the risk they may pose.
Thank god, this book isn’t a romance. The relationships at the heart of this book are all women, and how they support each other. Two sisters who adore each other and are willing to sacrifice themselves and their dreams for one another. The women in the palace who help the protagonist — the henna artist, the servants, the spinners — and are willing to risk themselves to protect her because they can sympathise with her and her position. And the stories that the protagonist herself spins about her sister, and the strange power they seem to hold.
This is a quiet book, although an addictively readable one, at least until the conclusion. When things get a bit more action-packed towards the end, I have to admit my interest wavered a little, as the slightly distant myth-spinning storytelling style that worked so well elsewhere drained some of the immediacy and the tension of the action. But overall, A Thousand Nights is an amazing book, with lush prose, enthralling world-building, and a strong feminist bent. If you’re going to pick up a retelling of Arabian Nights, pick this one.