A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston is a loose retelling of the framing story from One Thousand and One Nights. Although it stands alone, a short sequel titled “The Garden of Three Hundred Flowers” is available as a free ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and a novel taking place generations later named Spindle was released toward the end of 2016. Regardless of A Thousand Nights seeming complete on its own, I do want to read both of these other stories since it is an exquisite book. It’s a beautifully written, fairy-tale-like novel that is largely about women who are undervalued and overlooked: the bonds between these women and the power they have, especially when they all work together.
Once, Lo-Melkhiin was a good man. When hunting one day, he was separated from his guards and encountered an ancient being who had watched humans live and die, coveted their ability to create, and took whatever it could from them while always craving more. When Lo-Melkhiin returned from the desert after this incident, he seemed to be a changed man, a cruel man—but the Lo-Melkhiin who emerged from that desert was no longer completely a man.
Since that fateful day, Lo-Melkhiin has married three hundred young women. Some of his wives lived for only one day after their marriage while others lived as many as thirty, but they all share one thing in common: in the end, they all die. After this became a pattern, the men were forced to take measures to keep traders from rebelling; however, instead of making a law preventing these women’s deaths, they simply restricted how often Lo-Melkhiin could return to the same location seeking a new queen. Only after he had married one woman from each village and district within city walls could he return to the same one for another wife, and then he would have to go through each of them again before seeking yet another woman from one of these places.
When it’s the nameless narrator’s village’s turn to surrender a bride to the king, she knows that he will choose her dearest companion: her slightly older, more beautiful sister. She will be made a hero for the sacrifice that will allow the other unmarried women to live and become a smallgod to her people after her inevitable death—or she would have, had the protagonist not decided she could not bear for her beloved sister to be forced into such a terrible fate. So she goes to her sister’s mother and divulges that she has a plan to save her daughter, requesting that she dress her like her sister. She dons the purple dishdashah that her sister was to wear on her wedding day: a garment that her sister claimed belonged to them both since they worked on it together and embroidered their shared secrets into it. On this day only, the younger sister will outshine the elder.
When the older sister discovers what the younger has done, she protests, but it is too late, for Lo-Melkhiin and his men are nearly upon them. As the two prepare to face him, the younger asks the elder to make her a smallgod after she’s gone, and her sister promises to make her one immediately, asking “What good to be revered when you are dead?” (pp. 15) She keeps her promise, and immediately falls to her knees in prayer as her dear sister is taken away to become Lo-Melkhiin’s bride.
After she is brought to the qasr and wed to the king, he comments on her lack of fear and notes that he thinks she will not die tonight. He grabs her hand and she sees colored threads between them, and then he leaves her. This tradition continues as does her life as Lo-Melkhiin’s wife, and she feels a power growing, one that seems to let her affect reality.
A Thousand Nights is a gorgeous book. It’s not an action-packed book but one that weaves its tale slowly with plenty of quiet but powerful moments, and the writing is so lovely that I want to quote about half the book when trying to explain why one should read it. It’s mythic and atmospheric, a book to savor, and also one that has a lot to say about women. I absolutely loved A Thousand Nights.
Although it’s inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, it’s not a literal retelling. It’s mainly narrated by the young woman who married Lo-Melkhiin to save her sister, but it begins with and is interspersed with short interludes from the perspective of her husband: not the man Lo-Melkhiin, but the greedy being he met in the desert who returned in his stead. After the two are married, the wife does not remain alive by entertaining her husband with her stories but through her own power. In fact, she barely tells Lo-Melkhiin any stories at all, although she does tell him one about her sister on the first night when he asks about why she deliberately drew his eye to take her place. Despite that, stories and storytelling are still central and it does contain some wonderful tales about the narrator and her family, such as how her father’s father’s father became a smallgod (and the reason the women in the family find it especially meaningful, a secret only shared among the family’s women). I also especially enjoyed the story of how the two sisters “did not hunt with spear or arrows, but with their own minds,” to quote their father (pp. 157).
A Thousand Nights is not a romance, and the author does not try to make it into a love story despite the implication that there is a good man left somewhere in Lo-Melkhiin. The narrator does not look upon Lo-Melkhiin as a man she might love; she remembers all the evil he has done and the women who have died because of him, and any time she does help him, it’s for the greater good or the sake of his own mother. Though there are of course scenes between her and Lo-Melkhiin (as well as some I enjoyed with her father and brothers), the relationships that shine brightest in this story are those between women: the narrator and her sister, the women in the narrator’s family, the women in Lo-Melkhiin’s qasr, and the narrator and Lo-Melkhiin’s mother. (Most of the characters in this story are nameless, including all the women, and are referred to as the narrator’s sister, mother, father, brothers, the weaver, the henna mistress, and so forth.) Although often overlooked by men, it’s the women who ultimately have the most influence in this tale, and it is they together who create ripples of change that become something great and powerful.
If there is anything else I could have wanted from A Thousand Nights, it’s characters with more personality. The narrator is courageous, wise, and loyal to her sister, but even though I quite liked reading about her and her mastery of her developing power, there wasn’t much about her that was distinct even though she was the most fleshed out of the characters through her words and stories. I do think that her portrayal fit with the fairy-tale-like nature of the tale so this is minor; it’s mainly a reason why I absolutely loved this book but can still think of other books I preferred since I most enjoy books that delve deeply into characters.
Even so, A Thousand Nights is a fantastic novel that belongs on the keeper shelf. Though the story itself may seem slow paced at times, it was never boring due to its captivating prose—in fact, I ended up reading many passages more than once. The mythic aspects of the story and the vividness of the desert setting were also well done, but what stands out to me most of all is the quiet focus on women as they live their lives, look out for each other, and use their strength together for change.
My Rating: 9/10
Where I got my reading copy: I received it for Christmas (it was on my wishlist).
This book is February’s selection from a poll on Patreon.