Have you noticed how often we tell the same story over and over? But every time, we add or take away or change something new. Stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, the land of Oz, or King Arthur are abundant in our culture. There aren’t so many attempts at retelling the classic Arabian story of One Thousand and One Nights, or not that I can recall. We’ve told stories from that impressive collection, and we’ve drawn on the source material to create some very different stories of our own, but I can only recall one Western retelling of it: a two-part miniseries entitled Arabian Nights.
So, The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh, is certainly doing something fresh and original.
The story mainly follows a young woman, Shahrzad – obvious reference to Scheherazade, and historically an earlier form of the woman’s name – as she becomes the wife of a Caliph who has lately been murdering his wives at dawn. Shazi, as her friends call her, knows this very well, as her best friend, Shiva, is among those murdered brides. Her anger, her hatred, over this is a force in and of itself. She volunteers to be the Caliph’s next wife, intending to use every means at her disposal, including her stories, to survive, or at least live long enough to find the evil king’s weakness and use it to destroy him.
But when Shazi meets Khalid, the Caliph, and begins to get to know him, she sees that he is not the same monster he is reputed to be. He is hardly more than a boy, and one who feels more deeply for what he’s done than anyone will ever know. He has not murdered scores of innocent girls because he wanted to, but because he has been forced into it by powers he cannot defeat. And thus, as Shazi learns the truth of the man, and then the truth of the situation, she comes to fall deeply in love with him.
Further complicating the situation are Khalid’s uncle, ambitious and malicious, Shazi’s father and her dear friend/first love, who want to save her, and everyone who wants to destroy Khalid for what he has done, which is understandable. Oh, and the icing on the cake: other friends and family and their own relationships.
So, it’s the old Arabian story, adapted for a modern audience, with a few twists and turns tossed in to make it more epic and gripping, and all to emphasize the incredible love story of Shazi and Khalid.
That last, honestly, felt a bit YA to me. In particular, I felt like Shazi just got past the death of her best friend a little too quickly and easily. Somehow, even before she really begins to see past her anger, she’s already attracted to him, strongly. I guess it just felt like the start of their romance was “just because.” I didn’t really appreciate it. I could enjoy it later, after it was established, but the earlier bits? Meh.
Fortunately, the tale was entertaining anyway. Not flawless by any means, but fairly riveting. The characters were great and lovable, if also a bit obvious at times. The story was told very well, I was spellbound from beginning to end. Shazi’s stories, and how they came to relate to the main story, were elegantly done. The descriptions of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch served to envelope the reader in this foreign, magical world.
I flat-out disagree with Khalid’s choice. He was put into a terrible, unconscionable position but not only was his choice exactly as his enemies wanted and needed him to do, but it really wasn’t the “only” choice available to him. There are obviously mystics in this land, he could ask them for help. If his city was about to die, he could have ordered a mass evacuation, called on others to help save his people, even forfeit his crown if necessary. And, of course, there’s maximizing the resources at his people’s disposal, which he eventually gets to later in the novel. Oh, and most of all, I couldn’t see why the curse placed on him had to be kept secret. Indeed, I would have issued a clarion call for help, made it widely known what was happening and why. Anything, anything at all, would have been better than what he did. And if it truly was unavoidable, I would have asked for volunteers who truly understood the situation and were willing to sacrifice themselves.
I also wish Ahdieh hadn’t gone with the cliffhanger approach. I get why she did, but it felt a bit forced, ya know? (and now I need to get the other half of the story in The Rose and the Dagger)
All in all, The Wrath and the Dawn is an entrancing new take on a very old story. It could have been better, but it’s still pretty good.
Rating: 8 stars out of 10.
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