It is supremely fitting that a story about the power of words has some of the most luscious, beautiful prose I've ever encountered in a YA novel. E.K. Johnston could have just talked about sand the whole time and I would have read three hundred pages about sand.
So many reviews and synopses of this book start out by talking about the prince, and I think that's because he's the only one in this book who is named. Our narrator is the unnamed wife of the prince who disguises herself in order to save her sister. Others are referred to by their honorifics. Only Lo-Melkhiin, the prince, has a name that the readers know.
This is a story we know, but told in a way you never imagined. You might know the tale as The Thousand and One Nights, and its clever, story-weaving princess as Scheherazade. In A Thousand Nights, our narrator is the daughter of a caravan trader. She has no name that we know of. Neither does her sister, the most beautiful girl in her family's camp. Nor their brothers, nor her sister's mother, for our narrator's father has taken two wives. There is no infighting, as one might expect. That's the typical plot device, after all. But as soon as you begin this book you'll realize that there is nothing typical or ordinary about it.
Looking at my notes, I have dozens of highlights where the beauty of the words was simply too much to bear. I cannot do it justice.
But I will say this: this is a story about the magic of stories. The magic within words. You might argue that only Lo-Melkhiin is named because those who defeat him are common people, those he would consider unworthy of a name. But I think it's more than that. There is power in a name. If you've read any sort of fantasy you've probably come across the idea of a true name, and that revealing that name to someone else is giving them power over you. Lo-Melkhiin is the most feared person of this story and everyone knows his name. Our narrator? Her sister? They are nameless and therefore untouchable. They conceal their power and use it to defend each other, rather than gobbling up power for power's sake.
The bond between the narrator and her sister is really one of the most extraordinary relationships I've encountered in fiction.
I fear this isn't a proper review, and yet, I cannot say any more without spoiling the story. And I cannot make you understand the power of the narrative (kind of like the power of the Dark Side of the Force). This is a book to savor, to roll on your bookish palate, exploring all of its nuances.