By Shannon Hale
Reviewed by Melissa
Several years ago, I remember hearing an NPR piece by Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, in which she spotlighted books with the best first lines. Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale wasn't on that list -- after all, it hadn't been published yet -- but it should be.
It's one of those lines that draws a reader in, compels them to find out more. And Hale gives us a story full of intrigue, suspense, adventure, romance and friendship that more than does justice to the first line.
Dashti is a mucker, a commoner who knows the songs that fix the everyday aches and pains, and resident of Titor's Garden of the Eight Realms. She falls upon hard times when her mother dies, and heads to the main city to find work. Once there, she is taught to read and write, and is given to Lady Saren -- a third daughter of a ruling lord whose only purpose in life is to get married -- as a maid. Unfortunately for Dashti, this happens just as Saren defies her father by refusing to marry the man of his choice, claiming love for another man. He has Saren, and Dashti (for a lady's maid is sworn to follow her lady), locked up in a tower for seven years. Dashti chronicles the days in the tower, writing and illustrating her journal: the loneliness, her struggle to understand Saren, the challenge of survival, the visits of Saren's two suitors: Kahn Tegus (her choice) and Lord Khasar (father's choice).
This book is remarkable for many reasons, but chiefly because it doesn't read like your typical fantasy book. Or even like Hale's other books. One reviewer commented that even though it was fantasy, it read more like historical fiction. I agree. Under Hale's more than capable hands, the story of Dashti, Saren and their time in the tower and afterward take on a life beyond the fantasy genre. It's set in a "make believe" realm, but it's not too hard to believe that the landscape and the atmosphere are the central Asian steppes. Magic is present, but in a form so natural and organic, it isn't hard to believe it originated from thousands of years of worship and sacrifice to the Eight Ancestors.
Another difference is Hale's choice of heroine. It would have been easy for her to choose to write this story from Saren's point of view, or with an omniscient narrator. But, because Dashti is a servant, the story takes on a completely different, and perhaps more believable, perspective and tone. I found it fascinating to see such a harsh and rule-oriented place from the point of view of someone most affected by the harshness of the landscape and the strictness of the society. In addition, Dashti is a simple, yet eloquent narrator. She's observant, funny, lyrical and honest. I hung on her every word.
This was from Day 11:
But some nights, when I tossed on my mattress, awake and staring at nothing, the sorrow would strike me. Quiet there in Qadan's dark house, my heartache felt like a river, and I was sinking into it, carried away fast in its coldness. That's the best way I can explain it, and what I mean by it is, I missed my mama.Or from Day 160:
"Can you tell me, what does the sky look like today?"Dashti was the brightest star in the book, but I felt that the other characters held their own. Saren was understandably sullen and frightened for most of the book, and at times I was irritated with her. But because Dashti was so loyal to her, I felt she must have had some worth. Lord Khasar was terrifying as the father-picked suitor. Leering, dominant and terrible: everything a good "bad guy" should be. And Khan Tegus... let's just say that the romance was exactly what a romance should be. Even if I did figure the ending out (but only in a general way).
"Sky? It looks like a sky."
"Is it blue?"
The guard snorted. "It's always blue."
But he's wrong. Though we call it the Eternal Blue Sky, I know that sometimes it's black, sometimes white, sometimes yellow, pink, purple, gray, black, peach, gold, orange, a dozen different shades of blue, with a hundred different kinds of clouds in thousands of shapes. That's what makes it so wondrous. If the guard couldn't see that, I wouldn't bother to explain.
Based on a little-known Grimm fairy tale, "Maid Maleen," Book of a Thousand Days is a remarkable story. Perhaps not one that makes you jump up and shout, but rather one that sticks with you, willing itself to be mulled over. Which makes the book an incredible read.