Summary: 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. 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.
A Thousand Nights is a rare book – and a fantastic one at that. The premise alone hooked me in – a retelling of Arabian Nights, a story about stories, a dangerous love story – but I wasn’t expecting this novel to be so powerful and beautiful. Upon reading the first couple of pages, I was struck by the lyrical prose and intricate details of the setting. E. K. Johnston’s turn of phrase in A Thousand Nights is simply stunning, and the writing alone captures your attention. What struck me was that the characters, apart from Lo-Melkhiin, our anti-hero, are nameless. We get detailed descriptions of their personalities, their appearance, their history – but not one character, even our protagonist, has a name apart from the villain. At first, this frustrated me. How was I supposed to write a review about a book where I didn’t even know the main character’s name? Nor the name of her sister, her father, her mother – not one character, except Lo-Melkhiin. Looking back, this was a risky move from the author – but it paid off. This novel, after all, is about the oral tradition of story-telling, which was so prevalent in Arabian Nights – a story made up of lots of other pieces of stories. The characters needed to be nameless to serve this purpose – and even though I feel like I know these characters – our strong and fearless main character, her loyal sister, her clever father – I don’t really know them at all.
This novel is told in a first person narrative from our main character, the desert girl who is Lo-Melkhiin’s latest wife, and her voice was a pure delight to read. She was intelligent, pious and devoted to loving her sister. Interspersed between our main character’s chapters were brief interludes from another first person narrator – the demon that lives within Lo-Melkhiin. Now this voice was uncomfortable to read. Sadistic, calculating and chilling, the demon’s voice provided an unsettling undertone to the novel, giving it an edge that I believe was what helped the novel develop. Not a lot of background detail goes into the nature of this demon, or where it comes from, but it’s powerful nonetheless and I loved this addition to the plot.
Aside from this brilliant plot device, the world building in this novel was fantastic. Our main character’s descriptions of her desert home and her move into the city upon marrying Lo-Melkhiin were absorbing, and you really feel like you can sense the sand underneath our main characters feet, that you can feel the heat of the dry sun on your skin. Another powerful description was the magic. Our main character develops these curious powers, this strange magical ability, which is due to her sister’s pious devotion towards making her a ‘smallgod’ – a local, smaller god with a connection to a family. I completely fell in love with the relationship between magic, power and religion in A Thousand Nights and how this resonates in the sacrifice that our main character made to save her sister.
That brings me on to another thing I loved – the love between these two sisters and the lengths they are willing to go to to save each other. I think that was what made our main character so interesting and readable; she was steadfast in her love for her sister and would do anything to secure her happiness. This love replaced romantic love in the novel – which struck me a bit at first. I presumed that this novel would be a powerful love story between Lo-Melkhiin and our main character, but it really wasn’t. There’s hints of a romantic conclusion towards the end of the novel, but we don’t get to see how this plays out.
The conclusion of this book was unfortunately a bit too brief for me, I think. There was such an incredible build-up, with our main character saving the day and saving the world – but I would have loved to have gotten a glimpse into what happened next. I feel like our main character, her family and Lo-Melkhiin deserved a few pages of a triumphant happy ending after all the hardships they go through in this book!
On the whole, however, this book was unlike anything I’ve ever read. Lyrical, powerful, entrancing and poetic, I adored the storytelling and vivid descriptions of this novel. It was exotic, mysterious and an engrossing read. One novel that you need to read this year!
*Thanks to PanMacmillan for providing me with an early review copy!*