A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston: Book Review

“If you listen long enough to the whispers, you will hear the truth. Until then, I will tell you this: the world is made safe by a woman… For one thousand nights, I lived a nightmare in the dark, but when the nights numbered a thousand and one, the nightmare was ended.”

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I FOUND THIS NOVEL when I was perusing Borders Barnes & Nobel one Saturday afternoon.

(Related: let’s all please observe a moment of silence for Borders since we now live in a world without borders. Thank you.)

The book cover is what grabbed me initially and the title too: A Thousand Nights immediately evoked Scheherazade’s story, One Thousand and One Nights, the gripping story of the legendary queen/ storyteller who is able to prevent the evil king from committing her imminent murder by telling him extraordinary tales and then leaving him on a cliffhanger just as dawn breaks so that he has to keep her alive for another day so she can finish the story. He eventually falls in love with her, like ya do.

Come to think of it, Scheherazade is probably one of the first literary characters to utilize the cliffhanger literary device, too. Scheherazade: Marketer Extraordinaire.

A Thousand Nights borrows a lot of similar themes from the classic story and adds elementsonethousandandone of mysticism and magic as well: the evil king that kills bride after bride, the strong-willed woman who wields some sort of power.

THERE ARE DIFFERENCES too: Lo-Melkhiin (cool name, cool spelling), the ruler of the unnamed dessert in which the story takes place (and incidentally, one of the only characters given a name– more on that later) has ventured into the dessert one day and upon his return, is completely changed: ruthless, cruel and dangerous. When the story opens, it is common knowledge that Lo-Melkhiin has been overtaken by some sort of demon and that whenever a dust cloud appears in the distance, you best believe it’s his pack of guards and horses coming to choose the fairest maiden in your village to be his (soon-to-be-dead) wife.

When we meet the protagonist (unnamed and referred to only as Sister/ Daughter/ Star of My Skies by the other characters), she is determined to keep Lo-Melkhiin away from her sister, who the village sees as the most beautiful and therefore, the most likely to be chosen as his (soon-to-be-dead) wife. The protagonist succeeds and travels to the city that houses Lo-Melkhiin’s palace and is able to survive there until she seems to lose track of the number of days she’s managed to avoid death at the evil king’s hands.

There’s a lot of sexy banter between the two, especially when Lo-Melkhiin lies next to the protagonist to sleep (they are husband and wife after all) and she stays awake, fighting her exhaustion because she’s not sure if he’ll try to kill her while she snoozes. That’s something to lose sleep over.

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I’m a reader who loves crackling chemistry between two characters, chemistry so real you can taste the conversations in your mouth. That said I felt that there were moments in the interactions of the power struggle between the protagonist and Lo-Melkhiin where that chemistry could have been more tangible. True, the protagonist is too disgusted with her husband to fall in love with him (and there’s the whole thing about trying to stay alive too), but couldn’t we have gotten some raunchy scenes of anger tinged with hints of sexual tension?

It’s very much cat-and-mouse with those two– he’s aggressively teasing her, trying to make her fear him more and she’s trying to remain unbreakable, stoic and speaks to him tersely. Still, I felt the scenes between the two could have been more confrontational and found the lack of sexual tension a missed opportunity on the author’s part.

(Anyone reading this is probably going to recommend I check out some Danielle Steel. Oh, don’t worry, I have 🙂 )

One of the more intriguing aspects of the novel was the italicized inner monologue of the evil demon that is responsible for taking over Lo-Melkhiin’s body. I absolutely loved the descriptions of how the demon (also unnamed), instead of getting rid of Lo-Melkhiin’s subconscious entirely (as he had done with his other victims), keeps him prisoner in a corner of his own mind – what a beautiful image! – while he, the demon, goes about ruling the city and killing bride after bride as Lo-Melkhiin.

The story carries on until the protagonist’s father asks for Lo-Melkhiin’s permission to take the protagonist back to their village for her sister’s upcoming wedding. The wedding is, of course, a cover-up for what the village is really planning: war on Lo-Melkhiin.

thousandnights2The battle that ensues pits the protagonist against the demon and his demon “kin” in the desert after the wedding celebrations have started to wind down. The protagonist meets Lo-Melkhiin outside the village’s tents and addresses him and the other demons. They are described as transparent beings made of white mist that are able to be everywhere and anywhere at once. Our protagonist soon learns that deals are not to be made with the demons and an all-out assault rains down on the village.

Through her determination and otherworldly magic (described as copper lines extending from her hands that she can transform and bend to her will– another nice visual), the protagonist calls on ancient magic that resides within her to defeat the demons.

THE STORY OVERALL was not what I was expecting. I suppose I imagined there would be less magic, more storytelling-within-a-story and definitely not as much old-timey English text (“I will stay, husband… I thought the desert was my home but it is no longer.”) which can get annoying but isn’t too bad once you can accept it.

I found a lot of the themes to be fascinating as well:thousandnights5

Power Struggles: Men v. Women: I felt this theme prominently throughout the story. Lo-Melkhiin (the demon) was constantly magically giving strength to his male guards, Skeptics and cooks, and ignoring the female employees (servants is perhaps the better word). It wasn’t until the protagonist’s arrival that Lo-Melkhiin picks up on the idea that the women who serve him (garment-makers, henna-painters, etc.) are worth investing magic in. However, he realizes this too late, as the protagonist has unknowingly protected the women of the qasr with her strength from his evil energy.

Sisterhood: The protagonist’s motives are fueled by her love of and need to save her sister and put an end to Lo-Melkhiin’s murdering ways. Something I found interesting was the author’s depiction of the sisters’ devotion to each other as basically a superpower. The sisters, having grown up in the desert together would sew dresses and fill the threads with secrets, carry water buckets together and dream together about what adventures their grown up lives would bring.

The author beautifully describes that closeness and love between the sisters as something palpable, and later in the story that connection between them takes on the form of telepathy with the protagonist’s ability to see her sister in dreams and trances. The drawing of strength from the sister to the protagonist is one of the aspects that keeps the protagonist alive and challenging Lo-Melkhiin.

Significance of Named and Unnamed Characters: There’s no denying the importance of characters with and without names. Lo-Melkhiin’s name allows us to measure him up, to attach him to something. But his very name is spelled oddly and definitely seems otherworldly to this reader, as if he was a demon before he was possessed.

We are never told the protagonist’s name and instead are left with “Lady-bless” (which I liked and tried to make my friends/ family call me that – to no avail) or Sister/ Daughter, etc. I don’t know about you, but when I don’t know a character’s name, it erases any trace of an image I might conjure up for them. While that was a tad annoying to this reader, I found myself focusing on her words and actions more than any reservations I might have had about her based on her name. She also seemed omnipresent in a way I did not expect, as if not being named allowed her to be unbound by the restrictions the letters of a name may have given her.

thousandnights4Psychological Prisoner: Lo-Melkhiin (the man) is a prisoner within his own mind, put there by the demon that possessed him. I found that image to represent quite a few metaphors in its own right:

1. Bound by greed/ power

2. Lack of being present/ mindful/ in the moment

3. Allowing depression/ negativity to rule over one’s thoughts and in turn, influence one’s actions

4. Finding oneself doing actions that are against one’s inner wants/ desires

The concept of being locked away in one’s own mind is fascinating/ chilling to me. Lo-Melkhiin is forced to watch the demon in his body use his own hands to commit atrocities that are painful to him. How many of us do this to ourselves in some form or another?

I see this question as an reminder, as unsettling as it may be, to remain present and to not let opportunities pass by, to speak up if something doesn’t make you feel good. These reminders are things I am taking with me as I close the chapter on A Thousand Nights (pun very much intended).

A good read, definitely popcorn fiction and a unique take on a classic story.

All in all, I give this novel 3/5 Scheherazades:

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Overall question for the class: could someone find out for me whether Scheherazade was a real person? All of my research is contradicting itself.

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Curated with love by Sam

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