Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

I love these days off I have. I can finish a book in a day, when I get going. Nothing much else gets done, mind you, but I always feel quite satisfied to have finished a book, and a little lost once it is done. Today, in addition to getting the most fantastic haircut ever, I have finished my first book by Shannon Hale. It has been a good day. I could maybe deal with a thousand days like this one, but I might get bored. I would be decidedly less happy with a thousand days locked up in a dark tower with only one other person I don't really know and nothing but my own writing to read.

Hale is one of those authors I keep hearing about and wondering why I've never read; she seems to be right up my alley. So I grabbed this off the shelf. It seemed like the right time. I'm trying to do less "I should read this" and more "I feel like reading this today" and that seems to be working very well for me. As did Book of a Thousand Days.

Inspired by the Grimm fairytale "Maid Maleen," this story is told in the form of a journal. Dashti is a lady's maid, and her lady is Saren, a slip of a sixteen-year-old girl who is being bricked up into a tower for defying her father's order to marry Lord Khasar, a man she desperately fears. They are to stay in the tower for seven years, a thousand days, or until Saren repents and agrees to be married. Dashti agrees to be bricked up with Saren, having sworn an oath to stay with her; and Dashti, being able to read and write, keeps a record -- a book of a thousand days.

That summary is just the starting point, and does not encompass the incredible detail of the backstory and world that Hale has provided Dashti with. What's even better is the way this backstory and world and the current plot is revealed to us: the journal format is used perfectly. Sometimes we see events, sometimes we see Dashti's innermost thoughts and feelings, sometimes we get Dashti's history, sometimes we get conversations reported faithfully. Dashti even sketches, and her art is very simple but exactly the sort of thing one might find in a young woman's journal, and I think it really adds to the story.

Something else the summary doesn't get across, and something I wasn't prepared for, was Lady Saren. Who was not what I expected at all. What's interesting, though, is that she rang true, if slightly melodramatic, and after adjusting my expectations I thought the dynamic between Dashti and Saren was very well done. Dashti's optimism and fearlessness were refreshing, particularly in the face of the obstacles; her faithfulness and kindness were also lovely. Dashti bends, but she doesn't break. Additionally, the contrast between Dashti and Saren makes for very interesting characterization for the two of them.

The magic and the religious aspects were also really interesting. There was a kind of magic, but it wasn't flashy or overstated, and in fact seemed quite organic. Dashti swears by her gods, and she doesn't waver from that, either. But whether or not they hear her is something for the reader to interpret. There are never overt signs, which I think is a nice touch. Another nice touch: the culture and society of Book of a Thousand Days is based on an Eastern model, rather than a Western one. Hale lists ancient Mongolia as her big influence here, and I like that a lot. I like that she's willing to take us fantasy readers outside of our regular comfort zone and stretch a little. I like that she's willing to step out of the pack of fantasy writers to try something different, and I hope that soon becomes enough of the norm that I don't feel I have to comment on it. Until then, this book stands out as a great example.

Something else that I think is interesting is that there are a lot of wince-worthy moments; this book is occasionally like watching a train wreck, in that one can see the bad things coming, but one can't help but watch. The romantic portion of this story is a bit like that. I don't usually enjoy that sort of thing. It stresses me out. But Dashti was such an engaging narrator that I couldn't help but like this tale.

I'll be recommending this one. Oddly enough, I don't see myself immediately rushing out to buy everything Hale has written. I liked this book, but I wouldn't say I loved it. It was readable, intelligent, an interesting fantasy and a good tale with engaging characters. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more Hale, but I've got a little ways to go before I'm convinced that Hale is an author I absolutely must read. That said, I'm keen to try out Princess Academy and/or the Books of Bayern at some point sooner rather than later.

I have one of my co-workers, largely, to thank for bringing this book to my attention. The co-worker in question is rapidly becoming as bad for my TBR as the entire blogosphere combined. She talked Book of a Thousand Days up to all of us children's programmers at one of our sharing meetings. Since then, we've been taking turns with the "Hey! Have you read this yet?! Ooooh, or what about this?" It's getting rather drastic.


Ana S. said...

I hope you do read the Books of Bayern at some point - I found them both charming and surprisingly complex (not that I don't expect YA or fairy tale retellings to be complex; it's just that I'd see Hale dismissed as shallow and simplistic. I should have known better :P). I haven't read this one yet, but I think I'd enjoy it a lot.

Unknown said...

I also had in my head that Hale was more "fantasy lite" which certainly wasn't the case with this book. It's not as complicated or dark as some other fairytale retellings I've read but it's by no means the lightest, either. I'm definitely looking forward to trying her other stuff at some point.