A Thousand Nights
by E.K. Johnston
Rating: 5 Stars
‘Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to my village, looking for a wife.
When Lo-Melkhiin – a formidable king – arrives at her desert home, she knows that he will take her beautiful sister for a wife. Desperate to save her sister from certain death, she makes the ultimate sacrifice – leaving home and family behind to live with a fearful man. But it seems that a strange magic flows between her and Lo-Melkhiin, and night after night, she survives. Finding power in storytelling, the words she speaks are given strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. But she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king . . . if only she can stop her heart from falling for a monster. Set against a harsh desert backdrop, A Thousand Nights by E K Johnston is an evocative tale of love, mystery and magic that would not feel out of place if Scheherazade herself were telling it.
And perhaps she is… ‘
I received an ARC from Pan Macmillan via Netgalley in return for an honest review. What follows is my own opinion.
Now that I’ve finally resolved my issues with Adobe Digital Editions I can get on with my ARCs! This was my first choice and a very good choice it proved to be.
This is not simply 1001 Nights told over again. There is no Aladdin or Ali Baba to be found in these pages, although there is a Scheherazade – or someone very like her. Nor is it the book I expected when I picked it up – a story about stories with a nested narrative a la Cloud Atlas – at least it’s not that book in the way I expected. It is a book about stories, but it’s a book about the power of words and belief, a tale of how the main – nameless – character becomes a story; becomes a ‘smallgod’ through the accumulation of the prayers and songs and stories of her people.
Speaking of ‘smallgods’, the worldbuilding is so, so wonderful. The desert people as ancestor-worshipers works so well and made such sense as the story builds. In fact, everything you learn about the life of the desert dwellers is relevant to the narrative – whether that be details of their way of life or their belief system. There is no infodump, there is only a beautifully spun story, that builds and builds into an intricate weave that makes such an impact in the finished tale. I felt like I was walking with the ‘Lady-bless’ through the world of her father’s tents and the gardens of her husband’s Qsar. I could hear the waterclock, the fountains, the women murmuring over their weaving. I could taste the olives, the dates and the salt. Reading this novel is an incredibly immersive experience.
One thing you will notice as the story progresses, nobody has a name. Everybody is named in position to the narrator and her surroundings – ‘my father’s father’s father’, ‘the pale man’, ‘my sister’s mother’ – but I was in no way confused. It all seemed incredibly appropriate with the tone of the story and I sank into this trait quite easily. Ok, I’ll admit that a couple of people have names but they aren’t necessarily their birth names, they’re one’s that have been given to them, names that make them into stories.
Some of the reviews on this bemoan the fact that it is not a ‘romance’. It isn’t, nor does it pretend to be, but it is a book about love and I like it all the more for it. Our protagonist loves her sister and her actions at the beginning of the book are driven by this familial love. Her sister loves her in turn and the strength of this bond allows them to set out on a course to save – not only each other – but the rest of their people.
‘That is why I put myself before her today – why I would not let you have her. My sister burns, and she does not burn for you.’
As the tale unfolds and we are able to see the truth of the capital behind the stories that our narrator has heard from her father’s trading caravan, her awareness of the power of words increases. The manner in which this is played out is enchanting to watch. In such an oral tradition the potency of stories is manifold and she learns to turn this to her advantage. The way she wields words towards the end of the novel is wonderful and it was such a pleasure to watch her grow. I think that’s one of the best things about this novel – watching the main character learn that she does not need to live in her sister’s shadow, that she can spin her own story to her own ends.
My only real niggle with this book was the ending – it felt a bit rushed and I wanted it to be drawn out a little. I suppose I wanted to see a bit more of what they had fought for, I wanted to feel that their dreams had been reached, not just know that they had. That said the last lines really pack a punch and I can almost forgive what I lost in the hurry for to get there in exchange for the effect of the end.
The beauty of this book is in the details; in the threads of the sisters’ dishdashah, in the lion’s mane wig of Lo Melkhiin’s mother, in the eyes of Firh’s Stonetouched eerie statues’, in the sand that drifts into everything and – somehow – in the goats.
I adore it, more than I ever expected to and I’ll definitely be hoping to lay my hands on a copy (with this beautiful cover – please let it be available in the UK!) once it’s released. A book to return to again and again, to turn the language over and over in your mouth like Sorkath seeking the pit in an olive.