A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston // a retelling in need of a bit more pace

252441111Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s/Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 20 October 2015
Category: YA
Genre(s): magical realism, fantasy, retellings
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

This lush reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights is as enigmatic as it is evocative. It weaves out of Scheherazade’s well-known origins a different tale to the one we usually hear. Not wishing to lose anyone else to the monstrous Lo-Melkhiin, its heroine decides to take her sister’s place as his next bride so that she may save her life. Her kingdom is trapped in a nightmare which can only be ended with hope, courage and dreams of a kingdom peaceful once more, where each is free to choose their own future. 

A Thousand Nights tells the story of a girl who weaves whimsical tales not just for herself but for all those she has left behind, and the love in this book is that of sisters, families and their people. Shrouded with bewildering illusion, spilling over with myth, and crowned by magic, its blend of genres – fantasy, adventure, magical realism, pseudo-historical fiction – creates a shimmering and surreal quality: every word is carefully chosen, every page a step further into a spell. It has a stunning cover, too: a luxurious swathe of deep purple, spun with gold, pink and blue.

Even more surreal is the idea that most of the book’s cast are not given names. Much of our heroine’s family is referred to only be their relation to one another, and readers may be put off by the lack of identity and individuality involved in their characterisation. Even the heroine of the story – resourceful, self-sacrificing, brave and finding herself wielding an eerie, strange kind of magic in the face of oncoming wrath and war – never names herself, and we are left with only an imprint, an afterimage, of the person she is striving to be. It takes a lot of getting used to, and takes away a lot of her agency. It’s hard to put a protagonist on your list of favourites when she’s not given a name. The vagueness of the characters and the book’s slow pacing made it difficult to imagine them or relate – but I liked its focus on stories, particularly those of women, which have suffered the silence of centuries. A Thousand Nights makes a magnificent case for the idea that just because we don’t know a heroine’s name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell her story.

A Thousand Nights will sweep readers into a world of desert sands and strange magic – but it takes its time. Lavish imagery and constant metaphors are characteristic of a distinctive writing style which is at its best beautiful, but at its worst cloying. It verges on purple prose and it’s not the mostly immediately engaging style; it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. A dramatic finale is well-earned, but the rest of the book is slow and easy to become disinterested in. The plot is meandering, occasionally dull, and, perhaps due to the characterisation, lacks the ability to keep you reading. For me, there was always just something off about it, the absence of that indefinable ingredient which takes books from ordinary to extraordinary. The cover is probably its most memorable feature. For a more action-packed alternative, try Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton or for more recognisable mythology, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi.

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Lush  and lyrical, A Thousand Nights is a story of the nameless, of the unknown heroine, of very real people who have faded into history, and very real acts of bravery and adventure which have been lost to time. Delicate and well-spun as a tapestry, it’s vagueness and slow pace are, however, major drawbacks.

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