When the dust rises over the desert, the villagers know that Lo-Melkhiin is coming with his guards to choose another wife. He always takes one wife from each village, or each district within a city. And she always dies.
E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights is a young adult fantasy retelling of the Scheherazade framing story for One Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of Persian, Arabic and Middle Eastern folk tales. Lo-Melkhiin is the ruler over a large area in the ancient Middle Eastern world. Those who know him know that he has changed from the caring person he used to be, though he is still a capable ruler. What they do not know is that when he rode out alone too far into the desert one day, his body was possessed by a ruthless creature — let’s call him a demon — who then proceeds to suck the power and life from the girls he marries, to give himself additional power. (This isn’t a spoiler; it’s disclosed on the first page.) Most girls last only one night. The original Lo-Melkhiin’s soul is still there, trapped in a corner of his own mind, watching helplessly as his body is used to bring death to innocent women and mar the minds and hearts of craftsmen and others around him.
A seventeen year old girl, who remains more or less nameless throughout the novel — other than appellations like “sister” and, later, “lady-bless” — sees Lo-Melkhiiin’s group heading to her village and knows that he is certain to choose her lovely half-sister as his next wife. In an act of supreme love, she dresses up in a beautiful purple wedding dress, or dishdashah, to capture his attention and save her sister. It works. Before she is whisked away by Lo-Melkhiin and his men, she asks her sister to make her a “smallgod” when she is gone, one of the spirits of dead family members who protect and help the living. But her sister tells her, before Lo-Melkhiin’s men take her away, that she and the other village women will make her a smallgod immediately, beginning the moment she is taken away.
This unorthodox jump-starting of the normal process of ancestor worship unexpectedly bestows mysterious magical powers on the sister who marries Lo-Melkhiin. When he grabs her hands in the ritual that would normally kill his wives, she is able to see life and power being sucked from her into him… and something unexpectedly returning in the process:
I thought I could see it, threads of gold and blue, desert sand and desert sky, bleeding from my body into his, but I had been a long time in the sun that day, and did not trust my eyes. He held on for one breath, then five, then ten. A strand of copper fire wound from his fingers to mine, so faint I wondered why I would imagine it at all.
This copper fire will prove important to the heroine, as will the stories of her life in the village and of her family that she tells to Lo-Melkhiin.
The world had never seen another like Lo-Melkhiin, and it had no stories to combat him. Not whole stories, but maybe there was something smaller. A thread in the story of a warrior who laid siege to a walled city. A fragment in the story of a father who had two daughters, and was forced to choose which of them to send into the desert at night… There were stories, and there were stories. No single tale that I could draw from would save my sister from a short and cruel marriage, but I had pieces aplenty. I held them in my hands like so many grains of sand, and they slipped away from me, running through my fingers, even as I tried to gather more. But I knew sand. I had been born to it and learned to walk on it… I knew that I had only to hold it for long enough, to find the right fire, and the sand would harden into glass — into something I could use.
Her tales are not of fantastical genii, but of her family and their desert life. She tells her stories not to convince Lo-Melkhiin to leave her alive for one more day, but in defiance, to show him that he does not have all power over her, and to remind herself of what is important in her life. And these stories have an unexpected power: they can predict the future — or even change the future. The question becomes, what will she do with her powers? She finds she needs to consider not only her only life and desires, or even her family’s, but also the country’s needs.
The evocative language used by Johnston immerses you in this ancient Persian culture. The girl’s stories are simple but carry a deeper meaning. Among other things, they show the power of women, even when they live in a society where men are in charge. I suspect this is at least part of the meaning behind Johnston’s leaving the women nameless. They may seem powerless, but a more careful examination of their lives and roles reveals a more subtle power, often hidden below the surface.
A Thousand Nights is reminiscent of The Night Circus in its deliberate pacing, in the elusive use of magic, and in the lovely, poignant prose used by Johnston, though the setting is vastly different. Some readers might find the pacing in it too slow, but I enjoyed this novel and even reread most of it a second time as I was writing this review.
A Thousand Nights’ explanation of the basis for the ruler’s serial murder of his wives — that he has been possessed by a cruel demon — actually makes more sense than the original Scheherazade story, at least from our modern point of view. How could Scheherazade come to respect and love a king who has murdered countless women before her, and is only biding his time before adding her to his tally? So A Thousand Nights is not a romantic tale, but it is a story of an extremely powerful love: primarily the love between these sisters, and love of family, but also a love and concern that extends to others who may be touched by your actions.
I really wanted to like E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights. A female-centered perspective, a retelling of one of my favorite old tales, a relatively unusual desert setting, a focus on story — it all promised a great read. And for the first several segments, I was thoroughly enjoying it, but by the halfway point the pleasure had begun to ebb, and though Johnston provides several strong moments, overall the end result left me unsatisfied.
Lo-Melkhiin, son of a bad king who promises better for his people, is off hunting in the desert when he is taken by a desert spirit. The spirit locks away Lo-Melkhiin’s soul and then proceeds to turn his power to his own use, including consuming the creativity of his people (though only the men) and choosing and killing a series of wives. By the time he comes to our unnamed narrator’s village, he has killed 300 young girls. Knowing he will choose her prettier sister, the narrator finds a way to capture his attention and be chosen instead, asking only that her sister make her a “small-god” when she dies, as all assume she will (most wives have lasted only a night). Her sister, and the other women of the village, instead perform the ancestral worship rites and seem to bestow upon her a magical power that helps keep her alive beyond anyone’s expectations.
Just a note: the spirit inside Lo-Melkhiin has the occasional POV, but far fewer in number and since Johnston uses no names save for Lo-Melkhiin, I’m going to refer to the girl from now on simply as “the narrator.”
As mentioned, A Thousand Nights is, at its core, a very loose retelling of Scheherazade, but it overturns the ancient tale in major fashion. For one, Johnston has her narrator eschew the typical epic and male-centered mode of story-telling in favor of more domestic stories focused on women and their work: herding, sewing, performing religious rituals, showing their true, of oft-unnoticed power. This theme is emphasized by the focus on the women beyond the narrator — including her sister, her female attendants, and Lo-Melkhiin’s mother, who remains convinced that something of her good son remains in his demon-possessed body. None of these women are named, save by job title or honorifics, further highlighting the way they are overlooked, as well as their communal spirit. Magic remains part of the story, but it is the magic of weaving, of ritual, and of the imagination.
The sharpness of much of the perspective is a definite plus, offering up nice insights and biting commentary at times. This begins relatively early, as when the narrator discusses how after the deaths of several wives, the men decided to offer up “lesser” choices to Lo-Melkhiin, “and for a time no one paid mind to the host of poorer daughters that went to their deaths.” Later, the men institute a census and a rule that he must choose one girl from each village/district and only after all had been visited could the cycle start again. This so that:
The men were able to tell themselves that it was fair.
“But it isn’t fair,” whispered my sister… “They do not marry and die.”
“No,” I said to her. “They do not.”
Johnston switches things up as well by having the storyteller’s motivation be somewhat different, going beyond trying to keep herself alive and doing what she does both for her sister and for all women, for the longer she stays alive the longer before he moves on to another woman to kill. More than that, she must struggle at times with what is best for her people as a whole, men and women, because though Lo-Melkhiin is a monster, he is also in many ways a good ruler, allowing his people to prosper in many ways, especially in contrast to his father before him. This complexity was another plus in A Thousand Nights’ favor.
Lo-Melkhiin, or the spirit that inhabits him (while the term afrit/djinn is never used, it seems strongly implied), offers up another sharp contrast in his focus on power (its types, its purpose), consumption, and in the way he pays attention, until the narrator defies his own power, only to the men.
A Thousand Nights’ prose style does a nice job, admittedly perhaps too nice, of matching the rhythm and pace of an oral tradition, if the language is a bit more eloquent. Johnston shifts nicely among a more surreal, dream-like style, a more formal storyteller or mannered dialogue mode, and sharply detailed concrete detail.
So with all that to like, what was the problem? Well, as much as I appreciated the domestic focus for what it says about our own oft-misplaced focus, I admit that it was hard for me to maintain my interest in it over 300 pages, especially when it was coupled with so much time spent on relatively non-consequential details, such as food and dress. Intellectually, I can get that such detail meshes well with the theme, but it’s a balance — you still have to hold the reader’s mind. It’s the age-old dilemma — how do you convey the mundane without making it feel, well, mundane, and I can’t say Johnston succeeds here.
Similarly, Johnston does a nice job with the novel’s subtext, but too often she is a little too on the nose for my liking, not trusting the reader enough to get her point. A few moments or lines of dialog felt forced or too obviously carrying symbolic weight. Finally, the ending felt more than a little rushed and too simply wrapped up, though there was a lot to like in the details of what happens there (I won’t say more about it so as to avoid spoilers), and the magic as well seemed a little too easy/convenient.
In the end, what really worked against A Thousand Nights for me was its length. With its focus on the domestic, on those who live their lives quietly unnoticed, and its thoughtful and often soft narrative voice, it seems to ask a lot of a reader (at least it did for this reader) to hold with it for over 300 pages. As a novella, I think this would have been an excellent piece of work, but as it is, it became harder and harder to stay interested as we moved farther on from about 180-200 pages. That makes it a ‘not recommended’ for me, but it might be worth it, if you’re the sort who doesn’t mind slower paced works (I count myself in that group by the way), to give it a shot and see if maybe you sustain your own interest more than I was able to.