We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “A Thousand Nights” by E. K. Johnston
Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”
Book Description: 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.
Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?
There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.
For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.
By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.
I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.
It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.
Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.
I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.
All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.
I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.
Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.
Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.
Book Club Questions
- This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
- Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
- The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
- There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
- There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?
Find “A Thousand Nights” at your library using WorldCat.