For this book, Shannon Hale constructed a fantasy world based on medieval Mongolia. The story is told in a series of journal entries written by the main character, Dashti, over the course of a little more than a thousand days in her life. Upon arriving at the palace for her first day as a lady's maid Dashti discovers her new mistress, Saren, has been sentenced by her father to be locked in a dark tower for 7 years with no contact with the outside world. This is her punishment for refusing to marry the man her father has ordered her to. Saren has betrothed herself to someone else. Dashti agrees to be locked up with her as her maid. In the tower Dashti must try to help her mistress out of her pain and sorrow, cook, clean and try to make the food they have been outlast Saren's appetite and the appetite of the rats. During their imprisonment both of Saren's "suitors" turn up. Saren won't talk to her betrothed "love" and makes Dashti pretend to be her. The other suitor, who her father wants her to marry, is evil and takes measures to make the girls more miserable. Finally, when three years have passed and they are facing starvation Dashti finds a way out of the tower and the girls embark on a journey for a different sort of survival.
I enjoyed the character of Dashti. I think Hale did a tremendous job of presenting her in a way that made her thoughts believable to a modern western audience. Dashti truly feels she is less than Saren and all of the gentry. She has been raised to believe this and realistically that mindset would not break easily. Hale adheres to this reality. Dashti makes many decisions that most of us would find ridiculous but through her voice we find them reasonable. Like most of Hale's heroines Dashti has a backbone of steel and finds great strength in her own resources. She can be strong and face her enemies being who she is. This, to me, is one of the greatest strengths of Hale's writing.
My greatest quibble with the book was the format. The journal entry style made for a first person narrative told in past tense. It was all flashback and while this is necessary to understand Dashti and her motivations the story felt stilted as a result. The beginning was interesting and so was the end but I honestly skipped a lot of the middle. I am generally not a fan of first person past tense point of view anyways. So this is probably just a personal preference issue.
Many points in the plot also seemed to go beyond what could reasonably expected of the world created for it. The love story was hard to buy. I keep trying to remind myself that it's a fairy tale so it's okay. However, considering all the effort put into making us understand Dashti's feelings of inferiority and the class structure of this world the resolution of this issue was a little too quick and easy. I also found the true nature of the villain and how he was defeated a little tough to swallow.