A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

You can find my review for the Companion novel to A Thousand Nights, titled Spindle, here

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston was released in October of 2015, yet only came to my attention recently, after the outstanding success of its companion novel, Spindle, which was released in December of 2016, little over a year later. Where Spindle is a tale of daring and adventure, A Thousand Nights is a tale of loyalty and courage.

“If you listen long enough to the whispers, you will hear the truth. Until then, I will tell you this: the world is made safe by a woman.” – E.K. Johnston (A Thousand Nights, p.325.

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.

NOTE: The main character has no name – Johnston acknowledges that she did this intentionally (in her acknowledgements at the end of the book), so she will be referred to as the Storyteller Queen throughout this review, as she is referred to by this title in Spindle. 

a-thousand-nights

A Thousand Nights is a slow, slow burn. Like the desert from which the Storyteller Queen hails, it is exceptionally dry – for over half the book. Truly, the plot does not thicken, quicken or become wholly engaging in any way until Page 273. Had I not read Spindle prior to this, had I not know where the plot was taking me, I may have put the book down from the sheer boredom of it long before I reached the action.

This review will contain spoilers – if you have not read the book, I caution you to consider this before progressing any further.

On that note, I shall begin my review of A Thousand Nights with a general discussion of what detracted from my enjoyment of the story. The main issue I had with this novel was the brutally slow progression of the plot, and the lack of any real action (until Page 273, to be exact). Far too much time went into describing daily, mundane tasks (repeatedly) such as hair brushing, bathing and dressing.

“I was given a bath each morning, and I confess I took no small amount of joy in the sheer amount of water that was allotted to me. – E.K. Johnston (A Thousand Nights, p. 52).

“I sat  for hours as I was scrubbed, pumiced, hennaed, plaited and coiled.” – E.K. Johnston (A Thousand Nights, p. 80).

“The henna mistress drew her signs on me each time, and the girls coiled my hair and pinned it, and put me in a dress of fine make” – E.K. Johnston (A Thousand Nights, p. 200).

Above are merely a few examples of such instances, and while they are well written, they add little to the plot, and when repeated as frequently as they were, become tedious and mundane. What little intrigue the firs two-thirds of the book did have (mostly the Storyteller Queen’s spinning) was too short and skimmed over. Johnston really missed the mark here when it came to finding a pleasant balance between world-building, character development and action – she put far too much into the prior, and nearly nothing into the latter leaving this entire book feeling like an extremely long Prologue to Spindle.

However, despite the many problems I had with A Thousand Nights, it does resolve a major issue I had with Spindle by providing by more detailed, comprehensive investigation of the magic system at play in Johnston’s universe. While many things are still left unexplained, the Storyteller Queen’s ability to weave reality itself, whether through spinning or through her stories, answers a great many questions I had while reading Spindle (I know, I ought to have read them in order). In addition, the explanation of the creation of the mythical creatures seen in Spindle – the piskey, the sprite, the dragon, the gnome, the phoenix and the unicorn. All were created by the Storyteller Queen to lock the demon inside the King Who Was Good (Lo-Melkhiin) away from those beasts which the Storyteller Queen had grown up knowing – bees,  goats, lizards, frogs, sand-crows, and horses. My one complaint (in regard to the development of the magic system) was the scattered explanations of where, exactly, the Storyteller Queen’s powers came from. For anyone else who was equally curious, or confused, Johnston explained this a bit more concisely on Goodreads, stating the following regarding the Smallgods:

“Basically it’s ancestor worship, so when a family prays for a deceased family member, the spirit of that person gains power (i.e. her family’s ancestor from the camel story is the one they’ve been praying to for about 10 generations now, so his smallgod has a bit of power). Since my narrator is alive, and since the whole country is praying to her, she gains a phenomenal amount of power, all of which she uses at the end of the book.” – E.K. Johnston (Goodreads)

This simplistic explanation did a world of good for untangling my confused thoughts, and I do wish, as I often do, that the Storyteller Queen’s magic had been a bit more fleshed out within the novel itself.

Two things I enjoyed very much in A Thousand Nights were the development of the characters and the portrayal of women. Johnston put a great amount of time (at the expense of the overall quality of the story, mind you) into developing not only the Storyteller Queen, but also into developing the demon, Storyteller Queen’s sister and the King Who Was Good (Lo-Melkhiin)’s mother. Each was given a personality, a story, and a sense of agency one rarely sees among Young Adult novels. I especially liked Lo-Melkhiin’s mother, who was a strong, courageous woman, who never once doubted that goodness could still exist in the heart of her son, who had become a monster. She had faced many trials in her life, even faced her own imminent death, and yet still she was strong in the face of adversity, and never wavered in her conviction or love. It is her portrayal, among others, that made me love the portrayal of women in this story.

“They came to my father’s cause slowly at first, but my sister said that it was their women who begged them to join. Men has prospered under Lo-Melkhiin’s rule, and if it cost them a daughter, it was no more than a hard winter might demand as payment for survival. The wives and the mothers though, grieved each loss and prayed at my shrines to avoid further losses. They told the men to go, and, after a time, the men went.” – E.K. Johnston (A Thousand Nights, p.284).

The women, once oppressed by their way of life, found a way to empower themselves, as the Storyteller Queen had done when she volunteered herself in her sister’s place. They chose to fight, and in doing so, empowered those around them, whether it be their husbands, sons, fathers or brothers, to fight as well. So while A Thousand Nights can easily be frowned upon for portraying the oppression of women, one must not overlook the agency Johnston gave her women, either.

Overall, A Thousand Nights fell short of my expectations. It did not live up to its promise, focusing too much of world-building and character development, at the expense of the quality of the story and intrigue of the plot. Johnston began to redeem herself (somewhat) through her explanation of the magic system, but still fell short by failing to clearly illustrate the power of the smallgods. It was only in her portrayal of women and in her characters that Johnston truly shone in A Thousand Nights, creating memorable characters for a forgettable tale (2.5/5).

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