Book Review: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
Number of Pages: 328
Date Published: October 6, 2015
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
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. 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 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 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.
Far away, 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.
Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. 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 the rule of a monster.
Good men fall to monsters every day.
The truth is, I do not have much reading experience when it comes to retellings. However, the main frame story (Shahryar and Scheherazade) behind the One Thousand and One Nights Collection has always fascinated me. Hence, my interest in its most recent retellings – The Wrath and the Dawn and this book, A Thousand Nights. I started with A Thousand Nights partly because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read something with lyrical writing, magical realism, or just anything with more prose.
And prose was what I got. This book started off really interesting. I was, as usual, drawn to the writing. It really gave prominence to this book’s supposed magical/otherworldly atmosphere. However, to those of us who’ve read quite a number of books with the same writing style, we’d know that this kind of writing becomes tedious to read as the story goes on, UNLESS the plot offers interesting events or moves at a slightly faster pace; none of which happened in this case.
I could air some compliments here and there – its feminist approach, the focus on familial relationships rather than romance, the nameless characters that gave uniqueness and power to the story – but every good thing about this book is blotted out by its incredibly sluggish pace. You cannot deny the existence of this drawn-out lull from the time the protagonist became Lo-Melkhiin’s wife until the time she understood what she was capable of. Every scene, minus her encounters with Lo-Melkhiin, was so unexciting that the only thing that kept me reading was my curiosity as to how the story would end.
I almost skimmed through some of the chapters because it took so long to describe something like walking in the garden or doing a chore. Then of course we have the metaphors. Case in point:
Again, I wished that I could pray, but there was no one to hear my words; even if I could have said them to my own shrine, I feared the power they might unleash if I said them. It was though I were a water jar, nearly full when the bucket had come out of the well. Instead of pouring the water into another vessel, or back into the well, more water kept coming into my jar. I should have overflowed, spilling the precious liquid onto the sand where grasping roots would find it, but instead the jar kept filling. I knew that soon I would swell under the pressure, but surely the water must overflow. It could not be packed more tightly into the jar.
Okay, so it sounds like I hated the book. What’s with the rating then? Well, like I said, despite its lengthiness, the story, with its message, is still something worth knowing. Also, I liked how this book attempts to empower using the context of an ancient tale.
Lastly, can I just say that this reminded me so much of my experience while reading Bone Gap. The only difference is that A Thousand Nights was more engaging during the first half. Bone Gap drained so much of my concentration before I even got to appreciate the beauty of the story. Well, I’m not quite sure why I’m even comparing those two books; probably just popped into my head because of the writing style. The ending was well, suitable, but let’s just say it wasn’t as rewarding as I thought it would be.
Altogether, I’d say I did find myself enjoying this book for a longer time (vs. other books with the same writing style, yeah you know all that already), but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. If you’re about to read this book because you’re curious about the romance, don’t. There is about 5% romance in this book, and surely, not all those parts would be deemed ‘romantic’ by everyone. If it’s the story you’re after, then I’d have to tell you that it isn’t something twisted or one of a kind. The blurb pretty much says it all. I’m not trying to discourage you from reading this book. I did love it for quite some time, but I think you’d have to have a certain love for lyrical writing and slow-paced stories filled with magical and cultural elements to appreciate this one. You’d need some love for retellings too.