Sunday, 4 July 2010

CBR2 Book 56: "The Book of A Thousand Days" by Shannon Hale

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: June 7th, 2010
Date finished: June 8th, 2010

The Book of a Thousand Days is a retelling of the Grimm fairytale Maid Maleen, set in a world inspired by medieval Mongolia. Dashti is a young maid who is bricked into a tower with the Lady Saren, who is being punished by her father because she refused to marry the suitor he picked for her, Lord Khasar. Lady Saren has to stay in the tower for seven years, or until she relents. There is food placed in the basement for them, and ample provisions, but no door or windows in the tower, only a small hatch for disposing of their waste.

Dashti keeps a journal of their days in the tower, Lady Saren cannot even read or write. She is timid and sullen and eats far too much. While Dashti at first is amazed at the amount of food they have, it quickly becomes clear that with the rats in the basement and the quantities Lady Saren eats, they will never survive for a full seven years. Both of Lady Saren's suitors show up outside the tower, the cruel Lord Khasar to taunt and threaten them, and the kind Khan Tegus, who has never actually seen Lady Saren, only corresponded with her in letters. Saren is too scared to talk to either man, and makes Dashti do it for her. Tegus helps the women by giving them a cat, who manages to keep the rat population down, while Khasar throws fire into their hatch and nearly kills them.

After about two and a half years, their food has nearly run out, and Dashti realizes that they must try to escape, or they will starve to death. Since the rats have loosened the mortar in the basement, they managed to remove enough bricks to escape, and discover that everything around them, including the city Lady Saren's father ruled, has been razed to the ground by Khasar. They seek shelter in the neighboring country, ruled by Khan Tegus, and get work in the kitchen as scullery maids. Khan Tegus believes the Lady Saren is dead, and is set to marry another, to cement his alliance against the evil Khasar, who is determined to conquer all the countries in the area.

Unlike in the original fairytale, where the noble maiden herself is the smart and resourceful one, the heroine of the tale here is the servant. Lady Saren is weak, and scared, and fairly useless throughout the story, and makes Dasthi do everything for her, including talking to her suitors. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she was never treated well by her family, and may be a bit simple, but she was still frustratingly whiny, and I wanted someone to slap some sense into her several times throughout the book. Dasthi was raised on the plains, and is a "mucker", a kind of healer who can sing away aches, pains and even help with injuries. When a friend of Khan Tegus is hurt, she is called in to help, and once it's discovered that she can read and write, she is promoted from scullery maid to scribe, and gets to spend much more time around Tegus, who she has fallen helplessly in love with.

Khan Tegus is nice, and honourable and everything the prince in a fairytale should be. He feels guilty that he couldn't do more to save the Lady Saren, who he believes died when Khasar destroyed her father's kingdom. He does not love his betrothed, but will marry her for the sake of his people, to strenghten their forces against the evil man threatening them. Lord Khasar is a cruel and evil man, and a very convincing villain. Lady Saren finally tells Dashti why she is so scared of him, and why she refused to marry him, and it suddenly does not seem so implausible that someone would choose seven years of imprisonment in a light-less tower rather than marry him. Obviously, this secret is what is needed to defeat him as well, and Dasthi not only saves her mistress and her beloved Khan, but the kingdom and everyone in it.

The Book of a Thousand Days was a lovely, little story, with a very sensible and brave heroine. After travelling in Mongolia last summer, it was a lovely surprise to me that this book was set in an are so obviously modeled on it, something I had no knowledge of when I bought the book. The different customs and traditions added an exotic element to the story, which made it even better. I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes fairy tales.

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