Book Review: A Thousand Nights

Posted August 17, 2015 by Lyn Kaye in book review, Jessie from Ageless Pages, Lyn / 10 Comments

Book Review: A Thousand NightsA Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
Published by Disney Hyperion on October 6th 2015
Genres: young adult, retellings, magical realism, fantasy
Pages: 336
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Buy on Amazon

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.

Jessie from Ageless Pages Review is joining me again to review A Thousand Nights. She always brings a very distinctive voice to the group, and I love it when she drops in for a group discussion!

Border Leaf

Lyn: So I’ll kick this off today, since I always beg you to do a read along with me. So, how neat was this to see a good retelling of Middle Eastern folklore?

Jessie: I loved that aspect. Honestly, Scheherazade is such an interesting story and that alone was enough to put this book on my radar. I love seeing her unique survival tale pop up more in retellings lately. Between this and A Whole New World, and The Wrath and the Dawn, it’s pretty refreshing to see at least a few Middle Eastern myths and legends being explored for a YA audience.

Lyn: Especially since jinn/genies are getting such horrible books. Seriously, it is embarrassing to see white authors write about someone else’s mythology and culture, then slaughtering it. I was really worried about this one when I saw it come out, but I am so happy that there were bloggers who read it previously and recommended it. This is one of the better Middle Eastern retellings.


Jessie: I vastly preferred this version of the story to what shown in The Wrath and the Dawn. I thought the atmosphere was very well-rendered and detailed. I really pictured the scenes and places (especially the desert and qasr). I thought the narration itself was a bit removed and aloof to have the desired impact but the writing was also so lovely sometimes. It just really worked for me as a whole — the feel of it, the writing, the characters. There were parts I wasn’t fond of but A Thousand Nights has been my favorite retelling of the summer.

Lyn: Yes! You captured my feelings perfectly. The writing, and the desert landscape, were just so beautiful. You could actually taste the air and feel the sun on your skin. The author is very well versed in world building. But I did feel like I was a complete outsider in the story. I didn’t see the characters get the same wonderful descriptions as the setting. The geography was fleshed out more than the people in the story. I was actually hoping to like this one a bit MORE than I did, sad to say. It was good, but at the same time, I was a little let down. I feel like I missed something in the story.

I think what also drove me away from the story is the mass animal killings. I agree with your statement to me that sometimes it is needed, and that things that happened in the book are a part of desert life. It is tough to survive in their environment. But I was really upset over the big cat killings. I think it didn’t help that the news is filled with Cecil the lion, and some of those emotions from that terrible headline bled over into the story.

Jessie: I can see why the characters are a harder sell than the setting. It took me the length of the novel but I just loved that narrator. I loved her love for her sister — how that bond meant more to her than almost anything else. And how her sister also honored that bond and didn’t let the sacrifice mean nothing. It gives her an additional motivation to live, you know? It’s not just about her survival, but her sister, her family, her clan.

I can understand that [animal deaths deterring your enjoyment]. This isn’t a book that shies away from harsh realities. I don’t like animal death in books — they stay with me a lot looooonger than human deaths — but I felt it served a purpose. The narrator’s entire life was bent towards survival. Every action, every death meant that someone else could keep living. It’s the exact opposite of what Lo-Melkiin does with his many wives until the narrator. He kills because he can, because it means nothing to him what that death does or what it represents.

I can’t even talk about Cecil because that will derail into capslockian rage of epic proportion.

Lyn: The animal part tears me in half. It was needed, and some of the events spurred the MC into action. At the same time, it breaks my heart and I just FEEL myself disliking the book a bit more. I don’t know if it is fair or not, and I honestly hate that I have that reaction. I suppose I can respect the reason it is in there, but I still just hate it.

Regarding the love towards her sister, that was a powerful motive to keep me going in the book. I fell in love with the narrator’s sister because there was so much love. The author showed quite a bit of the two girls’ relationship, and it was able to hook you right into the story.

That was a really controversial topic of the story, along with the animal deaths: the attitudes towards women. It was amazing how the author took such a sensitive subject and turned it around to matter in the novel. It was the women that pushed for change. I wondered how the author was going to tackle the sexism in the book, and I was shocked to see her keep in in there, but at the same time, in a quiet manner, she attacked the entire institution that the women in the society where expendable. There was quite a bit of pro-female attitudes towards the end, but it did take a while to get there, just like the real battle waged regarding the same issue in the world today.

Jessie: I thought the subtle nods towards towards the pervasive patriarchy of the society — how easily the daughters were offered up by their fathers, how the narrator remains nameless until the very end, how females are disregarded as basic fact and almost none were named at all — were excellent reminders how women have to fight for more than men do — even in fiction. But EK Johnston also went out of her way to foster positive female relationships in A Thousand Nights. Besides the narrator and her sister, there was the narrator and her own mother as well as the relationship between her and her sister’s mother. In most stories the second wife and the daughter of another wife would not get along — but even before the narrator’s sacrifice, they love one another. (Also isn’t it ridiculous to refer to women by their relation to someone else!)

Lyn: It took me a few days to realize it, but the people who helped the narrator were mainly the women. Weaker sex, my ass. They were the quiet heroes of the story. They fostered each other, watched out for one another, and cared for the well-being of each girl and woman in their group. While the men cared for the riches and success, the women were the ones fighting an unfair system. In a way, it broke my heart that the women had to spur the men to fight the right battles, but I think it is also a reminder to look down the hierarchy every once in a while and help those who as fighting discrimination and injustice. Bring them up a level, and if you have a louder voice because of your position in life, lend it to them.

(And, yes, it totally is, just like they exist for breeding purposes only!!)

Jessie: Last, the romance. I felt it… unnecessary. It was a moot point for much of the story — and that was when I liked A Thousand Nights the best. Once it was more traditional in its approach, it lost much of the appeal it had for me. I didn’t ‘ship it’ and I didn’t think how it ended was the most authentic evolution of that plotline/relationship.

Lyn: I wasn’t very fond of the ending. I felt that it undermined a lot of the message that the author was pushing. It wasn’t the main character’s choice. She wanted to stay with her sister, but she was forced into the arrangement because of “tradition.” I wanted to see the ending more like how the two women imagined their lives to be prior to the marriage.

Jessie: So, with that all in consideration, how did you feel about this? I also remember thinking it moved a little slowly for my taste. If the ending had been a tad clearer, the romance more solid and/or nonexistent, and the beginning a tad faster, this would have been five stars for me. As it was, I ended up really liking this story and the world Johnston re-envisioned for her version of 1001 Nights. 4-stars.
Lyn: I am sticking with 3. I loved parts of the story, but the flow and the emotional connection threw me off at times.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t not like it! I just wished I had liked it more.

Lyn Sig Plant




10 responses to “Book Review: A Thousand Nights

  1. Thank you so much for the review ladies. I have noticed the surge in Middle Eastern retellings, which is awesome. I haven’t read The Wrath and the Dawn yet, but I did read A Whole New World. While the atmosphere in that one was great, I was still disappointed. I may give this one a chance.
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  2. Great discussion! I really like a lot of the themes you’ve covered here like women/animal deaths etc. and the fact that this story isn’t set in the West and the setting is realistic is a huge plus for me. I have to admit that it was the cover of this book that drew me to this post but now that I’ve read what it’s about, I’m really intrigued. Will be adding this to my tbr 🙂

    Laura @ What’s Hot?
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  3. Interesting thoughts, ladies! I loved getting to read what you both thought of this book. I feel a tad ashamed that I didn’t notice the animal deaths (but then it’s also been a while since I read the book). What made the book for me was exactly what you two liked about it. The world-building was fantastic – for me, what y’all were discussing in terms of the food, atmosphere, setting, etc. – well, that, in combination with the relationship between the sisters, showed that the author understood Middle Eastern culture. The way they talked, the way they acted. That a sister would do so much to keep her sister alive – family is SOOOOOO important to Middle Easterners. It’s woven into every day life. What y’all said about a white author (though MEs are technically considered white anyway) ruining a ME retelling? Yeah. I confess I’m not super interested in any djinn books (or most retellings) because of that. I started this book with trepidation (and can’t really decide whether or not to read Wrath & Dawn – will I hate it? will I start getting nitpicky and think that she hasn’t captured ME culture well?). And man, this one got it so right. Also I really enjoyed what y’all said about empowering women and the excellent female friendships. I don’t tend to like retellings of 1001 nights particularly if they’re romances, because 1001 Nights is so sexist, but how she twisted the death of all those daughters, all those women, into a critique was just… YASSSSSSSSSS.

    I agree that in terms of characterization, it could’ve been better. I think that in some senses that’s where the no-naming writing style hindered the book. How much easier it would’ve been for us to feel more rooted to the book & characters if they had names! But in the end, I think I still prefer this style, even as a reader who likes character-driven stories best, because the distance and the atmosphere gave it this sort of legend feel.

    Interesting that you thought of the romance! I actually interpreted it a different way. Even if she’s staying within tradition, she also has the power to do A LOT for her people (and women) if she remains with him. So for me, it was more of the same empowerment that y’all were talking about, and how best to work against a system but from within it, when you’ve been raised to an influential position?

    🙂 I’m glad you both enjoyed it for the most part. Sorry about the animal deaths, Lyn! I will try to remember & warn you next time!
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    • Sorry that it took me a while to reply – I always like to think about you replies before I respond.

      Don’t worry about the animal deaths. I seem to really get upset over this, so I can’t help but to notate when it happens.

      I had no idea that ME was considered “white”. I suppose I need to say European-descents from now on.

      I was happy that someone was able to not “whitey” up the story. It stayed very consistent with the culture. I was thrilled that someone did their homework. But overall, it was well worth the read! Jessie and I need to get you involved in our next readlong.
      Lyn Kaye recently posted…Garden Gazette: August Wrap UpMy Profile

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