After really loving E K Johnston’s A Thousand Nights I shouldn’t be surprised that I was a little bit disappointed with her next offering. To be fair though, that’s on me more than on Johnston – I was never going to love a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (the title character does nothing/ heroic prince and damsel-in-distress princess/ true love’s kiss – bleurgh!) anywhere near as much as a retelling of Scheherazade’s story. And while Kingdom of Sleep lacks some of the cleverness and sheer beauty of A Thousand Nights, frankly, if all YA fiction was to this standard it would still be a vast improvement. One of my small gripes with this companion novel is that it reads YA in a way that the first book definitely did not. And the romance is both predictable, unavoidable (considering the source material) and … sorry … too squishy for me.
That said, I loved the way Johnston went about the romance. Yes, I could see it coming a mile away, but I liked the gentle humour involved (particularly Yashaa’s unbelievable ignorance of certain biological matters, which meant there was no … ahem … petty fingers, or worse), the rather tender way in which it unfolded, and the ending. I can’t say anything about that without utterly spoiling the book, but I’d recommend it because of the conclusion alone. I imagine poor young teen readers will find it heart-breaking *evil chuckle*, but I thought it was a pretty fresh approach to a story ending that’s been done to death. (And I might have felt just a little sympathy for Yashaa and Zahrah … maybe … but don’t tell anyone).
I liked, too, that this was a story with friendship at its heart. Yashaa, Saoud, Tariq and Arwa are friends who love and respect one another throughout the story. They have become family to one another through loss and necessity. There’s no rivalry, no love triangles, no ridiculous fallings-out to further the plot or to create tension. The silliest thing is Yashaa’s hatred for the Little Rose at the beginning of the book, and thankfully that didn’t last long enough for me to get cross with him.
On the flip side, I found that some things didn’t quite sit right with me. The curse, for example, is the work of a demon here, a part of its long game of manipulation and power-gathering, but in this context it didn’t ever quite make narrative sense. From the moment you know the curse’s full intent you know how it can be shut down, which means the reader can see the ending coming (not the absolute ending, just the ending for the demon), and that meant that I could never quite be as afraid of the demon’s threats as I might have been. Also, while I really loved the piskys and the gnomes, they felt a bit out of place in this mostly desert-fringe setting. A forensic archaeologist IRL who has worked in the Middle East, Johnston’s world feels authentic most of the time (one of the things I really enjoyed about A Thousand Nights) and I loved that she decided to keep writing within that setting, but the piskys and gnomes are, for me, so tied up with British mythology and therefore the British landscape, that I struggled to transpose them into her Eastern world. Again, that’s on me.
This may not make a whole lot of sense, but what really kept bothering me as I read this was the shape it was making in my mind. Once I’ve read a book it kind of solidifies into a particular shape, a set of images and colours, ideas and feelings that I then file away. So, A Thousand Nights is a perfect egg-shaped story, purple, orange and hot-pink, sprinkled all over with gold, that smells of incense and a cool building in summer. The images of an empty, rolling desert and a beautifully embroidered salwar kameez come to mind when I think of it, and I feel content and pleased. It is a ‘neat’ story, all ends tied off, plot well crafted and executed. (There’s so much more than this: a brown-gold horse, a bedside table, a garden, a plate of figs, the smells that go with these things …) Every book I read becomes a sensory package that’s difficult to unpack or explain, but all my favourites are shaped right. And sadly, while I enjoyed it and would still recommend it, Kingdom of Sleep isn’t quite the right shape. It’s like a piece of embroidery that’s untidy on the reverse.
Clearly I don’t know how to put this into words properly. As a matter of interest, please tell me how you think of books after you’ve read them? Do you categorise and file them in your mind? Do you come to a solid conclusion, or do you remain fluid in your thinking about a book? Are your other senses involved? Do you see images/snapshots when you think of a particular book? I’d love to know other people’s thoughts/feelings on this subject.