I was yelling at this audiobook while I was driving, which was great because it distracted me from my usual road rage but bad because it made me look and feel crazy. Of course, today it’s a crazy world so strap in everybody. Let’s go for a hate ride.
First, the synopsis: This (young adult) book is (supposedly) a play on the classic Arabian Nights. It features Khalid, an 18-year-old Caliph (i.e. king) in the kingdom of Khorasan who marries a new bride every day and then has her killed by morning. No one knows why, and apparently no one in the kingdom knows how to ask questions. Considering the lackluster reviews on the Khalid’s honeymoon rankings, everyone is surprised when a young girl named Shahrzad volunteers to be his next wife. Only we’re not surprised because we know off the bat that the Khalid had previously married and murdered her best friend, and thus she’s there to get revenge. For about two nights she employs the “trick” that features in the source material—she tells Khalid the beginning of a story but leaves it at a cliffhanger with a promise to finish the tale the next night, so that he won’t kill her come morning. By about day two they are falling madly, dramatically in love because: teenagers. Meanwhile, Shahrzad’s first boyfriend, Tariq the Love Triangle, is approaching the city and building an army to rescue her and overthrow the Caliph (because apparently no one else thought to do this after he killed dozens of other brides), and Shahrzad’s father is messing around with some magical book that anyone with the common sense of a housefly would realize is going to have dire consequences. But the question remains: Why does the broody-hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold Khalid kill his brides every night? Or at least, why did he use to?
(At one point they even mention that the riots in the city have quelled because he stopped murdering brides since Shazi arrived. This is how I imagine that decision went:
Rioter 1: “Well. Huh. You know, he’s stopped murdering innocent women, so I guess we can go home now.”
Rioter 2: “What!? But what about all the women he already murdered? Don’t we care about them anymore? Don’t we want justice for them? Shouldn’t a murderer be overthrown even if he’s stopped murdering?”
Rioter 1: “Yeah man, you know—I’m kind of tired and I’m really behind on reruns of Homeland, so let’s just call this a success and wrap things up. We can build those women a monument or something.”
*murmurs of assent from the crowd*)
So first, here are some of the pros for this book:
- The setting is Middle Eastern, as are the characters, which is a very under-represented location/people/culture in probably a lot of fiction in America, but I’m guessing especially so in young-adult.
- The main character is female and she IS, for the most part, very self-sufficient, confident, capable, strong, smart, etc. Of course, we have to spend large swaths of time also discussing how she’s very beautiful, because heaven forbid she has an underbite or a weird, uneven eyebrow.
- The descriptions in the book are fairly well done, from the cities to the desert landscapes to the food. I had unstoppable cravings for feta, flatbread, hummus and honey-soaked pistachio cakes as a result of this book.
Here is where my problems lie. (SPOILER WARNING, don’t read past this point if you don’t want “the big mysteries” revealed!)
The whole plot of the book turns on the mystery of why Khalid has his brides killed every morning. As it turns out, it’s due to a curse. Khalid was supposed to marry the daughter of another powerful kingdom’s ruler but he didn’t want to, so his solution was to…marry some other random girl he didn’t know from a powerful family within his own kingdom. Not sure what his plan was there…it’s not like he married some girl for love, so what difference would it have made to marry the girl who would have proven to be a political ally? Now you’re still married to a girl you don’t love and you’ve made a political enemy. It’s kind of played off that he does this because he’s angry at his father and he’s being petulant, which would imply he’s an asshole who really shouldn’t be ruling a kingdom (a theme I wish I could apply to modern times, but sadly I’m falling short), but all other evidence points to him not being an asshole so I’m not really sure how this works.
So ok, so he marries this other girl but they don’t love each other. She gets pregnant and is temporarily happy but she miscarries and then, because Khalid doesn’t love her, she commits suicide. You can see why, as a woman, I might find this storyline problematic.
The girl’s father, pissed that Khalid’s lack of love caused his daughter to die, curses the Khalid. The curse says that Khalid has to murder a new bride every morning for 100 mornings. If not, everything Khalid loves will be taken from him, his city will be destroyed and thousands will die. At first Khalid doesn’t comply and a drought occurs which, considering this is a desert seems like it would actually be a common occurrence that his administration could plan for, but he thinks it’s the curse and so he starts a killin’. The rains come and everyone stops dying but since they don’t know there’s a curse they just think the weather changed and their king has turned into a psycho.
And that’s the thing: First, the curse never says that the curse has to stay a secret. So for what reason does Khalid not tell anyone except his closest advisers about it? If you say it’s because he’s “punishing himself” by letting everyone hate him and think he’s a psycho, I’d like to point out that 100 innocent women are also collateral for this silence. If everyone knew about the curse they could crowdsource solutions. Like, maybe since black magic apparently exists in this universe, some other black-magic practitioner can come up with a way to counter the curse? Or they could get 100 girls to volunteer as tribute to die as martyrs for their people? Or everyone could just move and form a new city elsewhere that wouldn’t be subject to a curse? Or Khalid could sacrifice his own life so he wouldn’t be forced to kill 100 innocent women? I don’t know.
Here’s thing two: So Khalid—who is not a sociopath and, thus, apparently feels tremendous guilt and remorse about having to kill 100 women but also feels it’s absolutely necessary in order to save the lives of thousands—suddenly decides to stop his murdering because one of the brides tells a good story one night? I mean, according to the curse if he misses just ONE day, shit will go down (which, of course, it doesn’t—Shazi is there and alive for weeks/months before everything starts falling apart, so that makes zero sense other than we needed time for the two to fall in love and build up enough angst). So he’s gone through the torture and pain of killing dozens of women and then is willing to wreck everything and let those thousands die because wife #87 or whatever is “intriguing”? It’s not even implied it’s a “love at first sight” thing!
Finally, I’m just tired of there being “strong” female lead characters who go weak in the knees for some broody, moody guy who has no personality and who doesn’t exhibit a single trait other than wicked abs. I’m also tired of “strong” female warriors only being allowed to be good at archery. Seriously, we get it. It’s a more feminine-seeming weapon. Personally I would rather everyone have been surprised that Shazi was fucking kick-ass with a mace or an axe. Last, I’m tired of entire books hinging on secrets that really have no reason to be secrets other than as plot devices.
It should be mentioned that this book is the first in a duology. I will not be reading the second one.