4.5 out of 5 glowing stars
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story in an Arabic setting, and Renee Ahdieh’s writing just slips you into the world. Exotic foods and silks pepper the narrative, as well as bits of language – done in such a way that you understand -effendi on the end of a name is a term of respect, and –jan is for a relative or loved one. There is a depth and richness to it that just sucks you in. The characters don’t wear pants and shirts, they wear qamis, sirwal trowsers, shamla and rida’. I spent some time on google looking up the clothing to go with the words and got even more visually into the story. And of course, the description of the desert sunsets. She really straddles that line between enough description and not too much. This book is just sumptuous.
This is a retelling of A 1001 Nights, where a heartless King takes a new bride every night and then kills her in the morning. Then comes Shahrazad, who enchants him night after night with stories, and so puts off her execution. In Khorasan, in the capital city of Rey, the Caliph, Khalid ibn al-Rashid is doing the same thing. Well, he may have killed one too many girls. His next bride is Sharzad, an unfortunate mangling of Shahrazad if you ask me, but she’s also known as Shazi. She volunteers (as tribute – I’m sorry, it’s a cultural thing) to marry the Caliph. This is unheard of. But she has a plan. She intends to kill him for taking the life of her best friend, Shiva, and bring his reign of terror to an end. He comes to meet her, wondering why on earth anyone would marry him without being forced. Like Shahrazad in the famous story, she tells him a tale, and manages to earn herself another sunrise, something no other girl has done.
Buzz on this had that there was something else going on. Khalid does have a reason for what he is doing, but he’s so closed-mouthed, Shazi can get nothing from him. She’s intrigued by him. He is cold and silent but intelligent. He’s almost as observant as she is. On his side, it’s pretty much instalove… but it didn’t bother me. I mean, he put up a good front at first, but it’s obvious he’s in love with her. And that is bad, according to the people around him. Shazi has opportunity after opportunity to follow through on her plans, and lets the moment pass. She wants to know what everyone else does – why?
Ahdieh not only gave us an amazing new setting and culture in this YA fantasy, but she strayed from the cookie cutter YA personalities. Don’t get me wrong. I love some snark from the mouth of a tough girl, and I love a charming, grinning hero. But Khalid isn’t like that. He’s non-communicative and stern – until he’s not. He’s actually very romantic, once you get past the wounded young man thing. And Shazi isn’t your one-liner sass queen. She’s strong and brave – but when confronted with treatment she doesn’t like, she doesn’t snark or give off snappy one liners. She shouts. She often says “How dare you.” She says it to Khalid, to guards, to Jalal, the captain of the guards, to anyone that dares treat her in a way she doesn’t approve of. And it’s not a “Don’t you know who I am?” kind of spoiled.She knows her worth. I think she’s been comfortable her whole life, but she’s no princess. In this world, your family honor is a big deal, and though she loves her father, he has fallen from grace. Something happened when her mother died, and he lost his focus. He went from advisor to the Caliph (Khalid’s father) to a post as a glorified librarian. There is also a hint that he has a dark secret.
There are other really interesting characters. We have Tariq, the hero, who is Shazi’s childhood friend and his friend Rahim. They hope to free Shazi from the Caliph’s power. Despina, her sultry handmaiden who is in love with the Captain of the guard, Jalal. Since Khalid went in a different direction, Jalal takes the part of our grinning, charming dreamboat. General Al-Khoury lurks in the background, and there is always the threat that he might take care of Shazi’s execution if Khalid can’t go through with it.
I loved the story, the pacing, the characters – it was all wonderful. Except the reveal. I didn’t feel the reason Khalid was doing what he was doing was that compelling. I still enjoyed the story, the ending was a real punch in the gut, and we need the next one pronto.