9781447290377A Thousand Nights

By E.K. Johnston

♦♦♦♦◊

Lo-Melkhinn has taken a bride in every city and village in the kingdom, and now he is coming. The girl he chooses will be a hero and a martyr, safeguarding the hopes and futures and lives of those that stay behind. 

She will still be dead.

Lo-Melkhinn’s wives never survive very long. So when she sees the dust cloud announcing the king’s arrival to her village, she decides that her sister will not be chosen; she will go in her place. Through her courage and her sister’s grief, a subtle magic stirs in the sands of the desert, and Lo-Melkhinn’s reign becomes more fragile than ever.

Once in a while it’s nice to read a book where the tone and the prose take center stage. A Thousand Nights is such a book. In fact, this story would work very poorly in any other medium: so much of it relies on the unseen and the indescribable, on the imagery created by the words, that to try to adapt this visually would be, frankly, boring.

Very little actually happens in this story, and yet so much does, and that’s the brilliance of it. Johnston’s story happens mainly in her protagonist’s inner world, and only then does it expand outward, shedding light on only the things we need to see to understand the workings of her mind. The whole thing is so lyrical it feels like a fairytale. Heck, aside from Lo-Melkhinn, barely anyone has a name. The main character and narrator is “I”, and everyone else is “my brothers”, “the henna mistress”, “my sister’s mother”, and so on. And I really don’t mind – I had barely even noticed by the end of the book.

There’s a beautiful quality to the prose in this book, and the writing really is the highlight. It builds slowly until the climax, exploring themes of identity, the power of stories and the importance of women in a patriarcal society, culminating in a reveal that took my breath away when I read it. My only real issue is that this book didn’t need the big, bombastic climax it got; in fact it feels rather out of place. Yet I can’t really hate it, because I do appreciate the quieter, subtler elements of it: I just feel it would have been a stronger climax, and indeed a stronger book, if Johnston had kept to those smaller elements rather than blow them up into a battle scene.

I cannot recommend enough to read this book if you want to be wrapped in a fairytale, or if you think your last novel lacked in poetry. This is minimalist world building done right, and subtle stories done right, and honestly if it weren’t for the climax I do think I would have given it a perfect score.

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