“I will live to see tomorrow’s sunset. Make no mistake. I swear I will live to see as many sunsets as it takes. And I will kill you. With my own hands.”
Shiva was just one of many young girls who wed the Caliph of Khorasan, only to be executed at dawn the following morning, without explanation or apology. But her best friend, Shahrzad is determined that she will be the last. So Shahrzad volunteers to be the Caliph’s next bride, vowing to stay alive for as many nights as it takes to figure out how to kill him and liberate Khorasan. Using her skills as a cunning storyteller, Shahrzad baits Khalid’s curiousity to buy herself time as she struggles to unlock the inner workings of the palace. Expecting a fearsome monster capable of murdering her best friend, Shahrzad is unsettled when instead she encounters a tormented young man who pays too much heed to his uncle and advisor, the Shahrban. Khalid does not seem to want to execute her, and yet also seems to believe that he must, for reasons he steadfastly refuses to disclose. Meanwhile, unaware of what is transpiring inside the palace walls, Shahrzad’s father, Jahandar, and her childhood sweetheart, Tariq, attempt to rally a force to overthrow the Caliph before he inevitably has Shahrzad executed.
Shahrzad goes to the palace determined to put an end to the Caliph’s reign of terror. Desperate to survive the first night, she strikes on the idea of storytelling, unaware that she has hit a particular nerve by doing so. But once she succeeds in avoiding execution, at least temporarily, she finds herself caught in her own trap; if she is constantly buying herself time by teasing Khalid’s curiousity, she also finds herself being drawn into the mystery of what made him the way he is. And what logical reason could there possibly be for the murders? She is able to wring some little information out of Despina, her handmaiden, and Jalal, Khalid’s cousin and captain of the guard. But Khalid himself is closed to her, and any effort to get him to reveal himself only seems to drive him away, putting her plans at risk. Alone in the palace, unable to truly trust anyone, she begins to wonder if she might be able to save this strangely appealing boy-king, instead of killing him.
This unusual romantic turn is made possible in large part by the fact that Shahrzad’s best friend Shiva is not a character we meet or are made to care about; she is only a memory. This distance is necessary in order to accept Khalid as a viable love interest, but still rather troubling, to Shahrzad as well as the reader. The result is an intriguing if somewhat disturbing romantic dynamic. Then again, all the men who love Shahrzad are a little disturbing in their own ways. Jahandar seems willing to throw caution and morality to the wind to save his daughter, while Tariq overrides her wishes and second guesses her judgement at every turn. Khalid then becomes appealing by virtue of his willingness to let Shahrzad stand her own ground, though her situation obviously puts her under some implicit duress. Then again, how do you control the behaviour of someone whose life is already forfeit?
In addition to requiring a delicate hand to strike the romantic balance in The Wrath and the Dawn, it also needs an excellent writer to retell the tale of a master storyteller. For the most part, Renée Ahdieh is up to the challenge, though her prose can be a little purple. She lavishes a lot of attention on beautiful clothes, sumptuous furnishings, and decadent meals. But in between, she draws you in with Shahrzad’s retellings of the 1001 Nights myths, and intriguing tidbits about Khalid, Despina, Jalal, and the silent and mysterious Rajput, who is assigned to guard Shahrzad so that she will die at no one’s order but Khalid’s. But the real magic is in how elements of the 1001 Nights tales seep out of Shahrzad’s retellings, and into her own life. Soon enough, the pretext falls away, and Shahrzad is not narrating for her life; she is living the stories. This makes for a fresh take on a classic while also fitting squarely into the contemporary young adult genre.
Ultimately, The Wrath and the Dawn is not a stand-alone, so questions about how well this all comes together remain. A sudden twist in the final pages sets Sharzhad up to confront whether what she has learned inside the palace walls will remain true on the outside. Can a romance forged in such peculiar and insulated circumstances survive in this world that is on the edge of war? The Rose and the Dagger, due out on May 3, 2016, will have to reconcile these elements.
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