The story of Scheherazade is one that is tricky to do as a retelling. There's so much potential for the problematic. E.K. Johnston is one of the few authors I would name as one who could tackle this and do it well if I were asked. And in A Thousand Nights she did just that.
Lo-Melkhiin has wed-and killed-300 different girls. The first few caused unease but went generally unremarked by the nobles. When the numbers started to pile up, a law was passed. One girl from each village in turn and then he could start over again. One girl has the courage to make herself the target of his eye in order to spare the life of her sister. After she survives the first night and then another she begins to realize she has a power her predecessors did not have fed by her sister's prayers and rites that have made her into a small god. The demon who inhabits the body of the once great king is intrigued by this new wife. When he realizes the power she has, he becomes greedy to share it and use it for his own bent purposes. Unfortunately for him, he never bothered to understand the power of the small gods or the strength of the women who who tend them.
A Thousand Nights is as beautifully written as I've come to expect from a book written by E.K. Johnston. The prose pulled me right into the rich desert world and oppressive palace where Lo-Melkhiin makes his home. The richness of the world is in the details Johnston includes and her beautiful imagery which calls to all of the senses. Not every aspect of the world is explained. She leaves a lot to conjecture, but it works well for the story she is telling. In another type of book this might irritate me, but here I preferred it to the alternative.
Discussing the characters is a little difficult as none of them save the possessed king have a name that is mentioned. This is another thing that might be irritating in another type of story but works incredibly well here. The heroine is in no way lacking despite only being referred to by the various titles she holds to those who love her. Her act of sacrifice for her sister makes her courageous and laudable, but she is also clever and industrious. She is being fed power by the rites her sister and the women in her village are performing, but she is the one whose keen mind and willing hands figure out how to manipulate it and negotiate the dangerous life she lives in the palace. The heroine's sister, though we get to see less of her, is also possessed of industrious heart and keen mind. It is through them working together though they are miles apart that great things are accomplished and I truly truly loved this aspect of the novel. It demonstrated the power and strength and contributions that women make by doing whatever it is they excel at. It also showed how easy it is for those things to be overlooked and for their power to go unappreciated and underestimated.
The aspect of this retelling I enjoyed the most was that there is no attempt to turn this into a story about romantic love. It is, first and foremost, a story about sisterly love, but there are all other sorts of relationships celebrated as well. And it is a story about women: their friendships, their alliances, their arts, and their bonds with each other.
I read an ARC provided by a friend who had finished with it. A Thousand Nights goes on sale October 6th.