Friday, October 02, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

In A Thousand Nights, E.K. Johnston builds a historical desert kingdom of sand and magic as she reimagines the framework for the A Thousand And One Nights folktale collection. Readers may be familiar with Scheherazade and how she outsmarted the tyrannical Shahryar by telling him stories; she left each story unfinished so that he would have to allow her to live to the next night so he could hear its ending. In many adaptations of A Thousand And One Nights Scheherazade's tales are often what get the glory. In A Thousand Nights, we know from the opening line that this is a story well-aware of the danger of being a woman under a blood-thirsty king's rule.

Like Shahryar, Lo-Melkhiin has had many wives. When he uses one up, he kills her and takes another. Some women last a night. Some a week. No one makes it more than a month. When A Thousand Nights opens, he's already killed three hundred women.

Against this backdrop, Johnston tells the tale of a young spinner—of thread and stories—who loves her sister enough to take her place as Lo-Melkhiin's bride. From the impactful opening line to the last page, this unnamed narrator's lyrical voice weaves a spell over the reader. By carefully selecting the right details and words, Johnston enables us to feel the danger/wonder of this kingdom—be it during a flash flood or a dictator's rooftop star-viewing party. The desert is a dangerous place, her narrator tells us, but there is also much life to be found there.

That perspective is the key to A Thousand Nights. This is less the story of how a brave young queen wins over a tyrannical king than the story of how women come together and draw on each other's strength. Ladies have each other's backs in this book, and it changes their world. There is a love story in A Thousand Nights; there is also a story about how much the sisters love each other, and a healthy, functional poly family. There is no shortage of love, but I wouldn't call this a romance.

We hear from various sources within the story that Lo-Melkhiin was once a good, kind prince. This changes when a supernatural force hungry for magic and power possesses him. Potentially this could create a reading that goes oh, his mental illness is to blame. However, it's less about mental illness and more about a toxic belief that people are disposable. What I appreciate is how A Thousand Nights holds him accountable—it addresses how he became complacent in these acts. His complacency motivated the demon within him to keep escalating things, to keep trying to get a reaction.

Complacency—from people, from the world—in violence against women is what allows the arrangement to be put in place that sacrifices daughters and sisters to keep the kingdom safe. Lo-Melkhiin does all these things and the men of his kingdom don't ask him to stop killing. They ask that the victims be evenly distributed among the camps. Even if reading the possession as mental illness, the book doesn't use it as an excuse. It's something that the kingdom is refusing to address, half out of fear and half out of how it doesn't directly affect them.

The catalyst for change in A Thousand Nights is its narrator and her perspective. She asks for what she needs, she listens to what other people need, and she respects their agency. The book consistently presents that being kind is an active choice; one that courageous people want to make. It suggests attitudes can be changed without resorting to violent measures or domination.

To help reinforce this, Johnston adds the concept of the small-god—a form of ancestor-worship practiced by the characters. It allows the book to explore the power of support, and the responsibility that comes with having power given to one. While Johnston explored this theme to some degree earlier this year in Prairie FireA Thousand Nights takes the use of world as metaphor a step further. She is obviously an author growing her craft, which promises more great stories to come.

This story, A Thousand Nights, is about the power of consent—and about how not respecting it is what makes people into monsters. It is full of superb world-building, women looking out for each other, and the occasional wisdom learned from goats. If any of those things sound interesting, then this tale is one you'll want to hear.

A Thousand Nights is available from Disney-Hyperion at your local bookstore,, and Kobo. Thanks to HGB Canada and Ardo Omar for the opportunity to read this as ARC.

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