The best books have their own smell. I’m not talking here about the smell of the book itself – although book-smell is one of the best scents on the planet – but the story’s setting, it’s place. When something is really well written it has a tangibility and a smell, like something remembered rather than something read. I didn’t expect A Thousand Nights to be that kind of book, and was delighted when I found that it was. It’s a book marketed as young adult fiction, but it has none of the teen angst and pining lovelorn-ness that you’d find in most YA stuff. I picked it up expecting a light read, something quick and entertaining that I didn’t have to take too seriously. Instead I read a story about bravery and survival, about gods and demons and magic, the power of story-telling (but not in the way you might expect), and about the strength and solidarity of women.
***SPOILERS ALL THE WAY (SORRY)***
In A Thousand Nights the desert feels real, and dangerous, a place whose moods dictates how life will be lived. It is entirely appropriate that this wild place that humans cannot civilize or bring under control is where demons come from, and Lo-Melkhiin has been possessed by a demon. He went out into the desert and came back changed, and at the beginning of the story he has had three hundred brides and, one after the other, he has killed them all. When he comes to the heroine’s village she knows he will want her sister, who stands out, and so she takes her sister’s place (in a sense this is the first ‘story’ she tells) and is taken instead. In the tradition of Scheherazade, she then survives night after night by telling stories. She is never named, however, in all the three hundred and thirty-six pages of the book.
What then follows is the narrator’s struggle to survive long enough to save herself and the women who could potentially follow her into Lo-Melkhiin’s qasr. She is driven at first by her strong love for her sister and her family, then by her fellow-feeling for the women of the qasr. In turn, her sister and family’s belief in her give her the power to fight her demon husband. This is where it gets interesting (more interesting, it’s already fabulous): the desert people from which Lo-Melkhiin’s wife comes, honour their ancestors by making them ‘small-gods’. An ancestor who has done something clever or brave becomes a part of the family’s legend, and the family pray to them for help and guidance. In putting herself in her sister’s place, the narrator finds that her family, prompted by her sister, now pray to her, (even though she is not yet dead), and this gives her a very real power to conjure with. The stories she tells begin to come true. Her dreams are made manifest. She sees coils of power exchanged between herself and her husband when they touch. At the very end she creates a handful of magical creatures. She becomes a living small-god, and a real match for the demon within Lo-Melkhiin. The magic throughout is beautiful and strange and I really liked that I couldn’t always completely unravel the logic of it.
The world of women is also gorgeously realised in this book. There is a separation between men’s and women’s work in the world of the story, and the sphere of women is initially depicted as domestic and spiritual. Women work with cloth and thread, they cook, they tend to the shrines of the small-gods. The women of the qasr also do this work, and as it becomes less than certain that Lo-Melkhiin’s new wife will die so she becomes a part of this world of work, and finds some compassion and companionship there. The magic that accumulates in her comes from women too. First from the women in her family praying to her, then from local women, then from women from other villages and caravans, as her story spreads. And when an army is raised to resist Lo-Melkhiin it is raised through the efforts of these women. It’s a fantastic feminist fable in this respect.
I liked also that despite the tagline on the front cover that declared this was going to be “the most dangerous love story ever told…” (with two faces silhouetted together in the eye of a peacock feather just to cement that idea in any potential purchaser’s mind), this story was not in the least bit romantic. It is about love, but mostly it’s about the love between sisters, and mothers and daughters, and family beyond that. There is no romantic frisson between Lo and his wife, there is only the tension of a power struggle that never quite becomes physical. I hadn’t realised just how well this tension had been written until I got to the part where the heroine’s father and brothers request an audience with her husband and I found I was holding my breath while he was pinching her arm. The demon in possession of Lo-Melkhiin’s body is spiteful and vicious and deeply selfish and there is no possibility of love there at all.
Which makes the ending all the more impressive. Knowing that Lo-Melkhiin was a good man doesn’t mean that after years trapped within a corner of his own mind, while the demon-in-control has done inhuman things with his hands, he is going to still be a good man, (or even a functional man), when he is free. As the story unfolded I worried more and more about just how Johnston could possibly achieve the satisfactory ending I wanted. And what she does is very clever. It’s the kind of ending for a story being told by an open fire out in the woods where magic feels real – the uttering of a few words that make a beautiful sense of everything that has gone before, like a key turning. I know I’ve given a lot about this book away, but not this bit. You need to read this bit for yourself.
I loved this whole book. It was wonder-filled and spell-binding and exactly what I was looking for when I opened it. I loved all the sensory details, the smells, the sounds, the tastes of desert life and life within the qasr. I loved the characters, particularly the heroine, of course, but also the women who support her and help her. I loved the magic, in all its bright beauty and strangeness and I loved the concept of the small-gods. I loved that there was meaning in even the most commonplace of things. I loved that the demons covet humanity’s creativity and that our creativity is the thing that sets us apart from the demons. I loved that in achieving a good ending the heroine doesn’t have to give up power. I love that women have power in this book. And I love that having written all this down I want to go and read A Thousand Nights all over again.
(I read this for the “Read a Book with a Purple Cover” category on my Book Bingo card).