Book Review: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

This is a feminist retelling of The One Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights. Basically, the premise of this classic novel is as follows: There is a king who loves his queen very much — so much, in fact, that he makes her a garden of her own. However, she uses this private space to plot the king’s death with her lover and then put her lover on the throne. The king overhears them making these plans and, heartbroken and livid, he has them both executed. He declares that he can never trust a woman again, but, being the king, he needs to have a wife. He announces his plan to take a new wife every day and execute her in the morning before she can have enough time to plot against him. Then Scheherazade, the heroine and incidentally a woman of high social standing, volunteers to be his wife. On the first night of their marriage, before they turn in for bed, she tells him a story but leaves off on a cliffhanger so that the king will want to know what happens next and will spare her for another day. She keeps this up night after night for 1,001 nights until he eventually learns to trust her and falls in love with her. They end up having a happy marriage.

I’m not sure how many women die as the king’s wife before Scheherazade steps in, but the classic novel seems like it’s probably one of the least feminist things in existence. That’s why it’s so surprising and refreshing that this retelling, A Thousand Nights, is incredibly feminist.

In this novel, the king is a good man until he comes back from a hunting trip in the desert one day having changed. No one can put their finger on how or why. They just know that he marries young woman after young woman and drains the life out of her over varied lengths of time; some die immediately, some die after days. But the crazy part is that the country’s citizens just accept this because, in the sense of protecting their nation from outside threats and making it economically prosperous, he is still a good king. And they think that the lives of the young women he kills are a small price to pay for the overall strength he gives the nation. On the day that the king visits the main character’s village, she fears that he will choose her beloved sister as a wife, so she goes out of her way to get his attention, and he chooses her instead. Every time a woman is chosen, the other women venerate her and make her a minor deity upon her death. But no woman has ever willingly gone as his bride before, so the women left behind in the main character’s village, especially her sister, spread the word of her sacrifice to women in other villages. Together, they all form a union through prayer and hope — one that infuses the main character with mysterious and slowly-developing supernatural power that might even make her a minor deity while she is still alive.

Not only does this novel blend court politics with a lush and folkloric desert setting — it is also feminist in atypical ways that make you think. Let’s have a look at some of them:

  • The men in the story are given names, but none of the women are — it emphasizes how little importance is place on women in this society.
  • The characters’ dialogue outright challenges male priorities and bids for power at the expenses of young women and families.
  • Still, not all the male characters are outright evil — they are nuanced.
  • The main source of power and victory in the story derives from women working together, and not even on a battlefield or anything like that. They use true friendship, strong family ties, and their day-to-day “womanly duties” to take action.

My only quibble with A Thousand Nights is that it moves very slowly and there are a lot of repetitive sequences. Still, this is a very original girl power novel, and I strongly recommend it!

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply