Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

A Thousand Praises for A Thousand Nights

a thousand nightsA Thousand Nights, E.K. Johnston
Hyperion, October 2015
Reviewed from ARC

I already told you this is a great year for fantasy, and I’m back to today to continue building the case.

And this is probably the one that most deserves the Printz, because for all the brilliance of The Scorpion Rules, the originality of Archivist Wasp, the many delights and flourishes of Bone Gap, this is the most literary of the year’s amazing genre bumper crop. It may also be the most overlooked and least buzzed of the bunch, making this a proper dark horse contender.

Look, I know I’m a fickle reader and critic who has fallen for more books than I can count this year. I stand behind them all, too. But what Johnston has done here with voice and setting and thematically with issues of gender and story: Wow. This is capital L literature. It may not be the one I love best, but this is definitely the fantasy (and probably the book, genre aside) of 2015 that wins my greatest admiration.

The writing is lovely: evocative, descriptive. And the cadence of the narrative deserves notice: it’s formal, but with a style that comes from an oral tradition. The use of a story-telling voice to tell a story about stories and story-telling is fitting and a little bit meta. It’s not just that this is written well, it’s that it’s written smart. It’s not so much a retelling as a reimagining of 1,001 Nights, and it stands out from all the others (which seem to be rapidly proliferating).

The unnamed characters, especially the main character and through her, her sister, are richly drawn, passionate women who understand their world and draw from it; the detail of their love for one another, the way it informs and shapes them constantly is a love story, like Code Name Verity, about friendship rather than romantic love. Juxtaposed against the power play of Lo-Melkhiin, against the loneliness of his mother, this becomes a treatise on the power of love. It supports and nourishes, and literally empowers those who share it.

Lo-Melkhiin, with his vampiric creativity-enhancing and devouring ways, is genuinely menacing. That he is the only named character heightens the sense of importance and therefore the degree of threat he offers. His power builds and destroys in equal measure; what he is may not be clear, but why he is tolerated makes perfect sense, and the pall he casts over everything feels palpable through the narrative. The entire qasr is bound by him and to him, until the narrator intervenes.

(As a side note, it’s very difficult writing about an unnamed character.)

The world building is exemplary; Middle Bronze Age Middle East may not be a popular fantasy or historical fiction destination, but it turns out to be a rich setting, and Johnston adds magic, which takes form slowly and steadily for the reader, who learns about it alongside the narrator. This is magic based in notions of creativity and imagination, fueled by storytelling and prayer (which is another kind of story, really). The physical places feel real, from the spinning and the heat to the complex family dynamics and the divisions between men and women, between village and qasr.

And again, the thematic scope. Here we have a world where belief can make a thing so; where the overlooked skills, creativity, and magic of women saves the day; where the small matters. That’s the world we live in; even today, we gender and divide and privilege some skills over others. A Thousand Nights never preaches, just draws out these ideas that are part of human history and weaves them beautifully into a rich fantasy that is deeper for the ways in which it uses reality.

As a study in character and a triumph of voice, for brilliant world-building, for being unlike anything else and yet deeply applicable to the world, this shines brighter than pretty much anything else I’ve read this year.

Share
About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Jenn @ Lost in a Great Book says:

    Could not agree with you more. This book was outstanding in so many wonderful ways – world building, storytelling, relationships between women, narrative retelling – and every time I read it I find myself discovering something new about it. I’ve recommended the hell out of this book, and can only hope that the Printz committee will feel the same.

  2. I would faint from joy if this actually got a medal.

    I like that you brought up Code Name Verity! It’s something that came to mind for me as well. It was so refreshing to read a story about two sisters. They love each other, and they save each other, and it’s the relationships, not the individuals, that’s the driving force of this book – and all of this is reflected thematically, not just in terms of plot, and so the book is so rich and layered as a result.

    I thought the epilogue was too obvious. But that’s the only knock I have on this.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply to A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston | So Many Books, So Little Time Cancel reply

*