Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.
And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.
Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.
Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.
Tell Me More: Scheherazade told stories, they say, fanciful and compelling enough to stave off a certain death for 1,001 nights. It’s a legend that still feeds imaginations today–we believe that stories can save lives and change people for the better. A Thousand Nights takes that belief one step further, focusing on the connections stories forge even across vast distances and the loss of one’s soul.
A Thousand Nights is not an easy book to read. The similarity to fellow 2015 release The Wrath and the Dawn begins and ends with the source material, and both novels tell very different stories. The narrative is not linear, not completely, and the third-person perspective places distance between the reader and the story, enough to challenge readers who might be more used to direct, first-person writing styles. Few things about this novel are direct.
Lo-Melkhiin is the only character that is given a name, and it’s uttered with fear and begrudged respect. He is a firm ruler, but his wives are reduced to casualties, and it isn’t until the narrator of this story is brought to his palace that we see him challenged in any tangible way. It takes a while to see how that challenge affects him, but the wait is worth it, as Johnston lays the groundwork for real tension and friction between the characters.
A Thousand Nights‘ protagonist remains nameless, her identity tied inexorably with the community she grows up in, and the women who have been her influences. We know she is loyal to her community, a loyalty bred of real respect and love for her mothers and sister. Lo-Melkhiin might be an unstoppable force, but it’s the women who are strongest and who will leave a deeper impression upon the reader. In one scene, the protagonist describes the first time she saw a flood race through the desert sands: the water barrels over everything in its way but for the rocks that protect her and her family. The women of this community are steady as rocks, maybe a little worse for wear in a harsh environment, but nevertheless solid and unshakeable. Our protagonist learns how to survive from these women, how to value her life and her worth, and to see that same value and worth in her sister. Where Scheherazade stands on her own, our protagonist acknowledges the women who have helped to shape her into the woman she’s become, and for whom she fights.
It’s another legendary woman who I would draw comparison to, after that realization: Esther, who became queen and saved the Jewish people from genocide, and who is celebrated today in the festival of Purim. Esther and the narrator of A Thousand Nights share an indomitable spirit and inner strength. King Mordecai might have been a kinder soul than Lo-Melkhiin, but Mordecai was easily swayed by deceit, and Esther’s courage and cleverness ensured that her people would not be touched by that deceit. Likewise, our protagonist holds onto her identity and love for her sister, and they keep her afloat in a situation that has intimidated and brought down countless women.
The Final Say: A Thousand Nights demands your full attention for a deeply feminist story, one that reflects on the value we see in women, and the incredible things they can accomplish.
E.K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.