I’ve seriously only heard great things about this duology, so when I saw them on the shelf at Walmart a few months ago, I just had to pick them up. Plus, the author blurb mentioned that Ahdieh is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, so I of course have to show some alumna support! But then, as always happens, time got away from me and they sat unread on my shelves. However, I’ve read some pretty deep/heavy books lately though, and this past week I was really needing something fast and fun to read, a little literary pick me up, if you will. These seemed liked the perfect choice – and I was right. In fact, I got so lost in the story and sped through them both so quickly that I’m going to write a single review for them as a set. I just couldn’t make myself stop reading long enough between the two to write a separate review for the first one!
First, the story being modeled after The Arabian Nights was both a major selling point and one of my favorite parts of the story. I absolutely love retellings, so when they are done well (and this one definitely was), it’s that much better. Starting with the story itself, the plot (pacing and development) was fantastic. Shahrzad (Shazi), volunteers to marry Khalid, the caliph of Khorasan, even though she knows he kills his new brides each dawn. But she has an ulterior motive: her best friend Shiva was one of those brides he killed…and she’s here for revenge. As they talk that first night, and Shazi tells him a story that is not finished by dawn, something happens. Khalid stays her execution. And as time wears on, Shazi and Khalid begin to realize things about each other, things that will prevent Khalid from murdering Shazi and will prevent Shazi from enacting her revenge. However, even though their hearts are changing, the hearts of those around them are not. And they’ll have to fight for their love and their future. It’s a non-stop story (perhaps even, at times, a bit too rushed), told in a way that makes you want to compulsively turn the page. The relationships and plot twists (let me tell you, there were some I did not see coming) all filled exactly what I was looking for. Which probably explains why I finished both books in less than a week.
As for the character development within the plot, the first book handles that perfectly. Each character, from Khalid and Shazi to their old loves, like Tariq, and their new friends, like Despina, are rendered deeply and well layered. They are all flawed, rather remarkably so, but each is more compelling for it. Their aloofness, boldness, anger, lack of self-control, secrets, etc. make them much more realistic (and relatable) to read than more perfect characters would be. I also felt like their connections to each other grew and changed reasonably. However, the second book lets this go a little bit, in my opinion. The plot starts to take over and the histories and personalities of our characters, both returning and new, pay the price. I feel like, particularly with Isra and Artan, their roles (the help they give, their magic, etc.) were needed to move the plot forward, so their introduction was primarily for that and their usefulness superseded us actually getting to know them. In general, they were just flatter characters than the ones we met in the first book. Relatedly, those from the first book did not grow quite as much in the second. It seemed that their characteristics were set and that was that, with no more development needed, which at times just fell a little flat and seemed too easy (with the exception of Jahandar, who I think was probably the most fully explored character in the second book). There were just a lot of elements to this story and, while I’m grateful that it was a duology and not a longer series (sometimes short and nicely wrapped up is perfect, as I do not always have the energy to get into something that long), I wonder if some of the development issues could have been handled better if there was more time.
There were some interesting undertones of Helen of Troy, what with so many major decisions being made primarily because of or in relation to Shahrzad, which is not super realistic (especially from some of the more adult characters). However in the same way that Helen plays a role in the mythology around Troy, the reader can and should accept the role Shazi plays here. Plus, she is given much more personality and hand in her own fate than Helen ever was/is, so that’s a point in favor of female strength. I also enjoyed the comparisons of smoldering/cold/controlled anger (from Khalid) and impulsive/hotheaded anger (from Tariq). It’s clear that the author has a preference for which type of anger is better, as one causes the character who has it quite a bit of suffering. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily a great message, as both are, at base, anger issues. But it was interesting to see them played against each other. And I definitely appreciated the way that love triangle was developed. It was present, with a part to play in the plot (truly, a large part), but in a way that is decisive, not drawn out unnecessarily. The light, but not excessive, role of magic was a great touch. Finally, I loved the ending. It was tidy but not unrealistic and I loved that all our female characters (strong throughout the novel) really took lead and brought about the conclusion. Quite satisfying.
Overall, this duology was incredibly entertaining and pretty much impossible to put down. It was exactly the quick, indulgent YA I was looking for. Though I have read better, as far as overall development, this was a fantastic, fun retelling. I am not overly attached to the characters or anything now that I am done, but I did laugh and cry (no spoilers, but there were definitely some tears) along with them while reading their story, which is exactly what I needed. If you are in the mood to spend some time in another world, whisked away on a consuming adventure with intrigue and romance, then I would definitely recommend this set.
There were a number of really sweet quotes from these books (about both love and lady strength) that I’d like to share here:
“You are – remarkable. Every day I think I am going to be surprised by how remarkable you are, but I am not. Because this is what it means to be you. It means knowing no bounds. Being limitless in all that you do.”
“…I remember asking my mother what heaven was. She replied ‘A heart where love dwells.’ Of course, then I demanded to know what constituted hell. She looked me straight in the eye and said ‘A heart absent love.’”
“It is a great gift to find lasting love – one that gives for every bit it takes.”
“You are boundless. There is nothing you can’t do.”
“It was because they were two parts of a whole. He did not belong to her. And she did not belong to him. It was never about belonging to someone. It was about belonging together.”
“It does not take courage to kill. It takes courage to live.”