The latest Shannon Hale’s book is also my first encounter with this author. It seems like the blogosphere can’t get enough of raving about her, and with reasons, I might add.
Hale’s favourite themes are fairy tales, retold and refreshened. This time she reworks a long-forgotten tale from the Brothers Grimm, Maid Maleen, and decides to set it in a world which resembles a lot the Medieval Mongolia.
The Book of a Thousand days is the diary of a princess’s maid, during the days of their confinement in a tower. The princess’s father wants her to marry Lord Khasar, and when she refuses, he locks her and her new maid up, sure than seven years of solitude will be enough to cure her insolence.
The princess is sulky and spoiled, but her maid, Dashti, can’t believe her luck. Before arriving at court and be employed as the princess maid, she was a mucker from the steppes, where she used to live with her mother, in a felt tent called gher. They used to travel with the seasons, herding ships and yaks and horses. Until her mother died and left her alone. Now, locked in the tower, she has food for seven years and doesn’t have to worry about starving anymore.
But after a while Dashti realises that the princess is eating off all their food too fast and if they don’t find a way out, they won’t survive another year.
What makes this story so enjoyable, and original despite the fact that it’s a retelling, is the way Shannon Hale created a whole world, completed with religion, culture and songs, that makes it unique. It’s a very hierarchical society, where nobles are regarded as the closest relatives to the Ancestors, their gods. Our heroine, Dashti, is well aware of this and of her position. But I liked that, as the story goes on and Dashti experiences so much more than a normal mucker would ever do, her perspective changes.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this world was the power of the healing songs of the muckers, which Dashti uses to ease the suffering of her lady. They are songs whose lyrics don’t have much to do with the pain they’re easing, but manage to go through the heart of the person and help them, as long as they want to be helped.
Another feature that makes this one a book to treasure, is the drawings in Dashti’s diary. They are simple but they really enrich the story and help identify the setting as a Mongolian one.
If you add Shannon Hale’s humour, a tender romance, and a beautiful ending, you really have a must read of a book!
The author’s website has an extensive section for this book. She explains how she came to write this book, how she invented this world and how her trip to Mongolia affected the settings for it. You can even read the first few pages of the book.
She also says something about the new point of view in the story that explains why it was so much more engaging than a simple retelling.
I was attracted to this tale because I wanted to tell the story of the maid. She’s mentioned in “Maid Maleen” but nothing is ever said about how she feels about all this, where she came from, where she goes. More than a broad, sweeping story, I just wanted to hear her voice, get inside her, experience her life. The purpose of a third person narrator is to take a step back from the main character, let the reader see and hear a little more than the main character might, have a little perspective. But with much of the story taking place in a dark tower, there was no where to step back. The setting made intimacy paramount. The story is Dashti. First person seemed the best way to tell it.
It was a brilliant read which left me wanting for more. I’m glad I still have all her other books to read.
other blog reviews:
Darla at Books and Other Thoughts
A fondness for reading