Vic James originally released Gilded Cage under the title Slavedays via Wattpad, where it won a Wattie Award for the distinction of being one of the most discussed books of the year in 2014. Earlier this year, Gilded Cage was published by Pan MacMillan in the UK and Del Rey in the US, and two more books in the Dark Gifts trilogy will follow: Tarnished City in September 2017 and Bright Ruin in June 2018. As a dystopia set in an alternate version of Great Britain, Gilded Cage is built upon the familiar theme of fighting oppression in the name of justice and equality for all people. Personally, I felt it was rather generic—especially considering it is slow with too many characters, many of whom are quite bland—but it does have some strengths setting it apart from other similar books.

In the world of the Gilded Cage, a small percentage of the population has a gift known as Skill (basically, magic) that changed the course of history in Great Britain, making it a nation ruled by people calling themselves Equals. In the 1600s, a man with Skill overthrew the monarchy by killing King Charles the First (and Last) and destroying the palace. His son, Cadmus Parva-Jardine, is remembered as a peace-bringer who erected the Parliament of Equals building using nothing but his Skill and became the first Chancellor. This revolution also led to the Slavedays Compact, which requires each common citizen to spend a decade of their life as a slave, allowing the powerful Equals to dedicate themselves completely to governing.

Though the Equals in their awesome magnanimity* permit citizens to choose approximately when to commit ten years of their life to service, there are benefits of choosing to do so sooner rather than later. Only those who have served are considered full citizens, and only full citizens are granted permission to own their own homes or travel internationally, among holding other rights.

It’s also possible for entire families to opt to complete their slavedays together as long as all children are at least ten years of age, and the three eldest members of the Hadleys decide the family will begin theirs soon after the youngest child’s tenth birthday. Eighteen-year-old Abi has arranged for them to attend the Jardines themselves on their estate: a rare opportunity that is far preferable to spending a decade laboring in a slavetown. However, when the first day of their ten years of servitude arrives, the paperwork only includes four of the five members of the family. The Jardines could not find a job for sixteen-year-old Luke and reassigned him to a slavetown, even though minors are not supposed to be separated from their families even during their slavedays—and his parents and adult sister quickly learn they are powerless in the face of this situation since they now officially have no human rights whatsoever for the next ten years.

After centuries of enduring this mistreatment, many are growing tired of the Equals’ reign and are beginning to dream of changing the system. In the slavetown, Luke finds and joins a group working against the unjust rule of the Equals. Meanwhile, the youngest—and most powerful—of the Jardines convinces the Chancellor to propose abolition to the Parliament of Equals in return for a favor, and he just may be on the cusp of revolutionizing the country one way or another…

The Dark Gifts series has promise given the strong ending of the first installment, but Gilded Cage as a whole is incredibly uneven. The prologue, which introduced the three Jardine siblings from the perspective of a slave attempting escape, piqued my curiosity enough to keep me reading, but there were several times after that point I considered leaving the book unfinished and may have done just that had it not been a fairly short book. Much of the middle of the novel is dull: it’s slow paced with lots of exposition shoehorned into bland text and dialogue. It also follows a lot of characters given its length—even the one in a coma has a point of view chapter—and though a few of them have some interesting qualities, it fails to make them fully three dimensional personalities.

The large number of characters is both a weakness and the novel’s biggest strength. Perhaps fewer characters would have made room to flesh each of them out a little more; however, expanding the cast beyond the underdogs who want to change the system to those who are actually unlikable also provided the more fascinating characters (even if parts of their narratives were still leisurely). Gavar, the Jardine heir, is a horrible person, but his point of view gives him more depth by adding insight into his childhood that shows why he’s so fiercely protective of his daughter. His betrothed, Bouda, is an ambitious woman whose family rose to their position through merit rather than birth, unlike the present-day Jardines. Though she despises Gavar, she believes their marriage will help her achieve her goal: becoming the first woman to hold the title Chancellor. Most intriguing of all is Silyen, who is so powerful that even other Equals don’t understand his abilities with Skill—but what makes him so compelling is that he seems to be steps ahead of everyone else, and his plans and motivations are mysterious. He seems to be working toward dismantling the system when he bargains with the Chancellor in the second chapter, but what isn’t he telling the Chancellor about his reasons? Is it just the cold, calculating curiosity that seems to be part of his nature—or is it something else?

By contrast, Luke and Abi are not particularly multi-faceted, especially the former. Luke has the basic character arc one expects in a dystopia: a brave person who realizes the world is unjust and joins the revolution. I found his chapters rather boring until his life is shaken up toward the end of the book. His sister Abi at least has a few character traits—she’s an intelligent, competent young woman who enjoys romance novels—but until she makes a bold choice toward the end, she’s rather dull, too. The more engaging parts of her chapters revolve around other people, and I quickly became tired of reading about her crush on Jenner Jardine that begins the moment she first lays eyes on him. Even setting aside the obvious problem of the Jardines’ enslavement of Abi (an issue of which she is aware when she first notices him), their budding romance has no spark. The time during which Abi works for Jenner and realizes that he, as the only Equal without Skill, is different from the rest is not shown: it goes straight from her realization that he’s handsome to her realization that she likes him as a person. Although it does show them together after that, they don’t have any chemistry then, either, despite some moments that seem to be trying to depict romantic tension between them.

Gilded Cage did have some strengths with its compelling opening and ending, plus a few engaging characters. However, it lost my attention several times throughout due to some slow pacing, unnecessary filler, unexciting relationships between characters, bland dialogue, and mostly unremarkable prose. It was just interesting enough (and short enough) for me to finish the book, but it was not quite interesting enough to make me want to read the sequel, even though it did end on a high note.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.


Read an Excerpt from Gilded Cage

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This covers the last two weeks since only one book came in the mail during the first of those weeks. Before the latest books, here are the posts that have gone up since the last one of these features in case you missed any of them:

The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

The Black Witch (The Black Witch Chronicles #1) by Laurie Forest

Laurie Forest’s young adult fantasy debut novel will be released on May 2 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt from The Black Witch.


A Great Winged One will soon arise and cast his fearsome shadow upon the land. And just as Night slays Day, and Day slays Night, so also shall another Black Witch rise to meet him, her powers vast beyond imagining.

So foretells the greatest prophecy of the Gardnerian mages. Carnissa Gardner, the last prophesied Black Witch, drove back the enemy forces and saved her people during the Realm War. Now a new evil is on the horizon, and her granddaughter, Elloren, is believed to be Carnissa’s heir—but while she is the absolute image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above nearly all else.

When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren is eager to join her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University and finally embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the University, which admits all manner of peoples—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of her people—is an even more treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.

Spymaster by Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes

Spymaster (The Dragon Corsairs #1) by Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes

This fantasy novel will be released on March 21 (hardcover, ebook). has an excerpt from Spymaster.


A bold new swashbuckling fantasy adventure set in the land of the exciting Dragon Brigade trilogy.

Politics, court intrigue, and piracy combine in this gripping fantasy adventure. On a world already riven by the ancient hatred between the Rosian and Freyan empires, privateers of each nation have long preyed on the ships of the other. What few realize is that a sinister cabal controlled by a rogue dragon is not only behind this piracy, but is organizing criminal enterprises all over the world.

As one privateer and her dragon corsairs try to keep their enterprise afloat, they are caught up in a conspiracy hatched by the cabal . . . and threatened by a mysterious magic crafter who works in the shadows.

Freya, in turmoil because of the accidental death of the heir to the throne, is also deeply in debt. Sir Henry Wallace, their master spy, is charged with replenishing the treasury by inviting dragons from Travia to make Freya their home—a decision that will have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

In a riveting novel of pulse-pounding suspense, the ruthless conspiracy of humans and dragons plots against Sir Henry and the Dragon Corsairs.. And waiting in the wings, planning to throw everything in turmoil, is a young man known as Prince Tom, who claims to be Freya’s true and rightful king.

Mythomorphia by Kerby Rosanes

Mythomorphia: An Extreme Coloring and Search Challenge by Kerby Rosanes

This adult coloring book will be available on April 11. Although I tend to cover fiction here, I couldn’t resist featuring this one after flipping through it—it has some rather compelling artwork!


Fans of adult coloring books will love the intricate, imaginative illustrations of Kerby Rosanes, the artist behind the Sketchy Stories blog.

The fantastically detailed style fans have come to know and love through his previous New York Times bestselling coloring books—Animorphia and Imagimorphia—is back, and just as awesomely-complex as before. Dragons, unicorns, griffins and other mythical creatures morph and explode into astounding detail. Bring each imagination-bending image to life with color and find the objects hidden throughout the book.

Additional Book(s):

Since the beginning of 2016, I have been reading and reviewing one book a month based on the results of a poll on PatreonAll of these monthly reviews can be viewed here.

When looking through the books I’d read so far this year, I noticed that all the books I’d read were set on our world or an alternate version of it so I decided to make high fantasy the theme for March. The most recent of the March choices was published in 2010, and the oldest was first published in 1978.

The March book selections were as follows:

The March book is…

Night's Master by Tanith Lee
Night’s Master by Tanith Lee

NIGHT’S MASTER is the first book of the stunning arabesque high fantasy series “Tales from the Flat Earth,” which, in the manner of “The One Thousand and One Nights,” portrays an ancient world in mythic grandeur via connected tales.

Long time ago when the Earth was Flat, beautiful indifferent Gods lived in the airy Upperearth realm above, curious passionate demons lived in the exotic Underearth realm below, and mortals were relegated to exist in the middle. Azhrarn, Lord of the Demons and the Darkness, was the one who ruled the Night, and many mortal lives were changed because of his cruel whimsy. And yet, Azhrarn held inside his demon heart a profound mystery which would change the very fabric of the Flat Earth forever…

Come within this ancient world of brilliant darkness and beauty, of glittering palaces and wondrous elegant beings, of cruel passions and undying love.

Discover the exotic wonder that is the Flat Earth.

I’ve wanted to read this series for awhile so I’m looking forward to it! (Also, the first three books in this series are no longer out of print with the next two soon to follow. DAW recently re-released this book, Death’s Master, and Delusion’s Master, and Delirium’s Mistress and Night’s Sorceries will be coming in April and May, respectively!)

Jacqueline Carey’s latest novel, Miranda and Caliban, is inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and narrated from the perspectives of the two titular characters. It’s largely a prequel since the majority of the book focuses on their childhood and young adulthood on the isle, but the end does follow events in the play with some embellishment. Most of the main plot points from The Tempest remain the same, although Miranda and Caliban’s thoughts and motivations are quite different from the original presentation. Yet, as much as I enjoyed reading it for its beautiful prose and immersive atmosphere, I thought it was held back from reaching its full potential to make Miranda and Caliban memorable characters in their own right by following this familiar story a little too closely.

Miranda and Caliban begins when Miranda is six years old and does not know how she came to be on the isle: she has only vague, dreamy memories of a previous life and her father refuses to speak of their past. She and her father live alone in an abandoned, rundown Moorish palace, and since Miranda’s father spends much of his time absorbed in his magical studies, she has little company other than the chickens and goat that are her responsibility. There is only one other on the isle: a wild boy. Miranda would like to befriend him, but she rarely so much as catches a glimpse of him, although he does occasionally leave gifts on their doorstep.

One morning, Miranda discovers a piece of honeycomb, the latest offering left by the wild boy. Before she can dip her finger in the sweet honey, her father orders her not to touch it and asks her to examine it. She sees that three strands of hair are stuck to it—hair that must belong to the wild boy and would allow her father to summon him the same way he did the goat that provides them with milk. Impatient at the prospect of companionship, Miranda wants him to do so immediately, but her father informs her that he must wait for the stars to be favorable if he is to be successful. Eventually the time arrives, and Miranda’s father sacrifices her favorite chicken and performs the summoning to bring the wild boy to them.

His magic works, and the boy comes to them. Miranda’s father locks him in a chamber, studies him, and attempts to teach him their language, but soon becomes discouraged that it may be a lost cause when the boy does not seem to learn. Fearing that her father will give up on him and remove his will completely, Miranda disobeys her father by sneaking into the boy’s cell, where she pleads with him to be her friend. She’s frustrated by the entire situation and dissolves into angry tears, but her hope is renewed when she sees that the boy does show concern that she’s upset. Relieved that he does show signs of understanding after all, she points to herself and states her name, and after she does this a couple of times, the boy repeats her gesture and reveals that his name is Caliban.

Though Miranda’s father is livid at her disobedience, he is pleased to discover she made some progress with the wild boy and allows her to continue to instruct him. Miranda’s wish comes true and the two do become friends, but as her trust in Caliban grows, her trust in her father begins to waver. His desire for Caliban to learn is somehow related to his desire to release the wailing spirit trapped in a tree, though he refuses to tell Miranda why this is important. As the years pass, it becomes apparent that there is much he is hiding from his daughter, and Miranda seeks to discover what he is plotting—and her own role in his plans.

Miranda and Caliban is a beautifully written book that flips the focus from the main protagonist in The Tempest to the only other (non-spirit) inhabitants of the isle, showing how Prospero’s actions affected those around him. In this novel, it is Prospero who is the villain, and Miranda and Caliban are childhood companions who fall in love—tragically, since the story still basically follows events in the play toward the end. I loved how Carey gave these two characters their own stories and distinct voices in present tense: Miranda’s formal and elegant and Caliban’s more casual and forthright. Miranda perhaps sounds a bit too educated considering the tale begins when she is only six years old but it is a pleasure to read, and Caliban’s narrative evolves as he learns language. At first, his sections are short with a string of simple words and sentences, but they speak volumes about Prospero’s treatment of him.

As it mainly follows three people (and later, the spirit Ariel) on an isle, it’s a quiet, character-driven book without a lot of plot twists, although there are a few surprises due to Prospero’s magic. The highlight is the aforementioned use of narrative and the lovely prose that brings the isle to life, although it doesn’t dwell overmuch on description. Secondary to the writing is the dimension given to characters who do not have depth in the original work. One of the biggest changes to events from the play is that Miranda is given more of a role than simply existing so her father can further his goals or spout exposition at someone, and she does not swoon over the prince or view Caliban as a monstrous villain. Earlier in the novel, she’s shown to have a talent for painting and an inquisitive nature that makes her wonder about her father’s motives rather than blindly accepting that he knows best. Caliban’s not evil but a kindhearted boy who cares for Miranda and chafes against his subjugation by her father.

Prospero is a particularly chilling antagonist because he wholeheartedly believes in his own righteousness as a servant of the Lord God and metes out severe punishment to anyone who disobeys him—including his own daughter—with barely a thought. The only time he seems to later regret his horrible treatment of others is when he nearly kills Miranda with his magic during a fit of rage. Everyone else on the isle is inferior in his eyes, and he has no qualms about achieving his goals and believes he knows what’s best.

In Miranda and Caliban, Carey does an excellent job of remaining true to the original play while fleshing it out by showing how Prospero’s quest for vengeance would have affected others: after all, The Tempest‘s main protagonist is a man who kept his daughter in the dark about their origins, caused a shipwreck that could have injured people who had not harmed him, deceived many, and enslaved Caliban and the spirits. This novel filled in the background and showed how the two titular characters felt about his treachery, and though it provided more details related to the events in the play, it changed very little (mainly, Miranda never expressed the same sentiments about the prince or Caliban as in the play). Reasons are supplied for the prince’s immediate infatuation with Miranda even though he believes his father just died, and Caliban’s motivations and thoughts give his actions after the tempest a new meaning while closely mirroring the original storyline.

However, I do feel that this novel never quite pushed the boundaries enough to make it an imaginative retelling with fully three dimensional personalities considering its emphasis on the characters. Other than Miranda’s art and the love story, Miranda and Caliban were largely characterized as having the same traits one who had read The Tempest would expect: Miranda is a lonely girl curious about her past and Caliban chafes against his captivity. Of course, the problem isn’t that they were characterized this way since that makes perfect sense—it’s that they were not fleshed out much beyond what could be inferred from the play itself in what is largely a book focused on the characters.

Though I could sympathize with both Miranda and Caliban, I was never quite as invested in their characters or their doomed romance as I felt I should have been, probably partially due to the love story seeming somewhat one-sided to me. Miranda obviously cares about Caliban, but she has more to occupy her thoughts than he and doesn’t seem to be interested in anything beyond friendship until discovering he loves her. Much of Caliban’s perspective centers on Miranda and his feelings for her, and it seemed to me as though his affection was true but hers may have been just because he was the only other young person on the isle. In general, I felt this was more Miranda’s story than Caliban’s despite the title and that Caliban was not given equal attention.

Although I didn’t find the characters quite as compelling as I would have liked, Miranda and Caliban is still a wonderful novel, even one of the better ones I’ve read so far this year. It’s beautifully written and atmospheric, but a little more imaginative character-building may have taken it from a great novel to a superb novel.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Signed finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt

Other Reviews of Miranda and Caliban:

Dreams of Distant Shores
by Patricia A. McKillip
288pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.89/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.91/5

Though I read far more novels than short stories, I was first introduced to World Fantasy Award-winning author Patricia McKillip’s work through her fantastic collection Wonders of the Invisible World (my review). I was utterly enchanted by her spare but beautiful prose, characters, and themes and also impressed by the vast range of her stories: not only were they a mixture of genres including high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, a fairy tale retelling, and science fiction but they also ran the gamut from lighthearted to serious. Regardless of category, wit and insight shone through her fiction, and I’ve wanted to read everything she’s written since—whether a novel or another collection like her most recent, Dreams of Distant Shores.

Despite being similar in length to Wonders of the Invisible World, Dreams of Distant Shores has fewer stories with the two longest comprising about two thirds of the entire book. It contains seven stories, three of which are new to this collection, an essay on writing high fantasy, and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle. (Though interesting, I did find “Writing High Fantasy” an odd choice for this particular collection, which features stories set in some variation of our world.) Since some of these stories have been published before and therefore may be familiar, the table of contents is as follows:

  • “Weird”
  • “Mer” (Brand new story)
  • “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”
  • “Which Witch”
  • “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” (Brand new story)
  • “Alien” (Brand new story)
  • “Something Rich and Strange”
  • “Writing High Fantasy”
  • “Dear Pat” (Afterword by Peter S. Beagle)

Far and away my favorite story in Dreams of Distant Shores is one of the two lengthiest, “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” which focuses on artists and the women who model for their portraits. It alternates between the perspective of one person from each of these groups: Harry, a painter, and Jo, a destitute woman who becomes the face of Harry’s work-in-progress. Like most of the men and a few of the women in their artistic circle, Harry is infatuated with Aurora, another painter’s wife and model. Though he dreams of painting Aurora himself, he doesn’t believe he could since her gaze always petrifies him as though she is Medusa herself.

After returning to his studio one afternoon dreaming of a great masterpiece that will make Aurora notice him, Harry remembers his portrait of Persephone, left unfinished after the disappearance of the model. The head is missing a mouth so he paints one, although he cannot use it: anyone would recognize those lips as Aurora’s. He hides it in the back of a cupboard, intending to forget about it, but he can’t ignore it when the mouth begins speaking to him. His desire for inspiration called forth the mythical figure he thought of when he saw Aurora: Medusa, who wants him to find a model and make her his masterwork.

Meanwhile, Jo is living in the streets among people so desperate they deliberately commit property damage in hopes of going to a jail cell with amenities such as food and a bed. She lost her mother and a child, and she recently fled a job yet again because of a predatory man. Starving and unable to find work, Jo remembers the time she posed for a young man painting a portrait of Persephone and tries to find him, as he paid well and was not unkind. When Jo succeeds in finding Harry, he doesn’t recognize her from before but he does know he’s found a woman with the “terrible, devastating beauty” to be his Medusa.

McKillip’s prose is gorgeous as usual, and she blends art and myth wonderfully in this story about painters so swept up in their grand visions that they do not see below the surface—nor do they want to, for fear that it will break the spell of their craft. Even though Harry is kinder than most of the men in his artistic circle, he can be rather oblivious, only hearing what he’s been told and missing the bigger picture of what’s going on around him, particularly how the worship of Aurora is affecting all of them—including the woman everyone has put upon a pedestal.

Part of what I love about this (and much of McKillip’s work that I’ve read) is that even though the society may try to relegate women to the background, McKillip does not. Jo has her own story, Medusa has her own voice, and though the other women are not as central, they are given more of the spotlight than any male artist other than Harry. The focus given to Jo and the other women add more dimension to “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”; had this story only belonged to Harry, it may have seemed as though it was about a man learning that (surprise!) women are real people too. (Although I think it is still possible to view his role that way, that doesn’t ring true to me since it seems more that he is laser-focused on his work since he has more meaningful interactions with the women in the circle than the men. I viewed it more as showing that while the men have the luxury of remaining lost in their dreams and fully absorbed in their art, the women do not have the luxury of safely ignoring the real world, and as such, are the ones who see the world more clearly.)

None of the other stories were as remarkable as “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” although I could appreciate aspects of all of them and found most of them worth reading. I had mixed feelings about the novella “Something Rich and Strange,” the longest story in the entire collection. It contains some beautiful writing, and the artist Megan is a great character with admirable courage and determination. However, what could have been a fantastic tale was marred by being far too long for the amount of story, and I found much of it dull. I also couldn’t help comparing it to The Changeling Sea—although the two are quite different in many ways, they do share some common elements including the theme of the allure of the sea—and The Changeling Sea is far better in every way (my review).

The rest of the stories are much shorter than “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” and “Something Rich and Strange,” which comprise about 25% and 40% of the book respectively. Since there are only five others, I’ll just briefly cover each:

“Weird” is, well, weird. A couple discusses the weirdest thing that happened to one of them while holed up in a bathroom eating out of gold wire wastebaskets and soap dishes. It’s perfectly entertaining and I’m sure what was going on outside was left intentionally ambiguous to fit with the title, but too much was left unexplained for my taste.

“Mer” follows a witch who just wants to sleep but ends up getting caught up in events involving a stolen wooden mermaid and a religious order of women dedicated to protecting cormorants from idiots. This was one of the lighter stories, and it’s my favorite after “The Gorgon in the Cupboard.”

“Witch Which” is the tale of a witch struggling to communicate with her new familiar, a crow who is trying to warn her about evil when she’s trying to concentrate on performing with her band. I didn’t think I was going to like it at first, but it was a cute story and I thought having some scenes from the perspective of the crow Cawley in addition to the witch Hazel made it better.

“Edith and Henry Go Motoring” is a story about two people who end up in a mysterious place where they see mysterious visions. Like “Weird,” it’s too vague for my taste, but it’s also less compelling overall and is my least favorite story in this collection.

In “Alien” a woman and her family are concerned about her grandmother, who claims that she has been visited by aliens—and her grandmother is frustrated that no one listens to her but assumes she must be bored or drinking. It’s a cute, readable story, but it’s not terribly memorable (although I did like Grandmother Abby!).

Even though I don’t think it quite measures up to Wonders of the Invisible World, I do still believe that Dreams of Distant Shores is well worth reading. Each story showcases McKillip’s skill as an author, and “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” is an impactful tale full of depth—and since it’s about a quarter of the collection, this story alone makes it a must read.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

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.