I couldn’t stay away from the sequel to The Wrath & the Dawn, and my library was quick to enable me with The Rose & the Dagger. The love story of Shahrzad and Khalid and the war it has provoked come to a swift conclusion here. Hold on to your bookmarks, folks, because Renée Ahdieh is not slowing down this magic carpet ride, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
First off: you absolutely should read the first book before you read this one. They essentially form one large story—I don’t know if they were originally written that way and then split for publication reasons or whatever, but if you think you can pick up this book and grok the story, you’re wrong. While I’m going to avoid spoilers for The Rose & the Dagger here, there are spoilers for the first book. Read my spoiler-free review of the first book, linked above, if you need help to deciding whether to read this series sooner or later. Yes, those are your only two choices.
The Rose & the Dagger picks up quite literally where The Wrath & the Dawn leaves off. Khalid allowed his rival Tariq to essentially kidnap Shahrzad to keep her safe. That’s right: they are sworn enemies, the latter plotting an uprising against the former, but they conspire to get Shahrzad away from Rey “for her own good.” It’s so convoluted and I love it! Of course, as we established from the onset of the first book, Shahrzad is not some girl to be manipulated and damselled at the whims of mere men. She swiftly starts plotting not so much an escape as a resolution. She seeks out help and lays the groundwork for ridding Khalid of his curse and hopefully quelling the uprising before too many people get hurt.
One thing I love about this book and its main character is how Ahdieh portrays people crossing Shahrzad for a variety of reasons and conflicting goals and priorities. It’s not just a matter of people taking a dislike to her; many of her closest friends and family serve minor antagonistic roles in this story. These people act at cross-purposes with Shahrzad out of good intentions, or from misguided but very human flaws and emotions. For example, Reza has transferred his hatred for Khalid onto Shahrzad, and this informs every action he takes here. Tariq has yet to accept that Shahrzad and him are never going to be a thing, that she is in love with Khalid, and his struggle to do so forms an important character arc. Irsa vacillates between conspiring with Shahrzad and trying to protect her, again, “for her own good”. And, of course, Khalid is still learning that Shahrzad is not a thing to be sent away or protected: she is a calipha, a force to be reckoned with, an equal partner who can rule with him. All of these little examples combine into a rich tapestry of complexity.
Not all characters are created equal, of course, and there are a few who receive less development than one might like. Salim is a cartoonish villain. Yasmine and Despina, each variously ally and enemy to Shahrzad & co, seem to make their costume changes off the page, making it difficult to understand or believe the motivations behind such changes of heart. Rahim and Jalal, both of whom receive a fair amount of development in the first book, languish more here. (Rahim has his moments, of course, but he remains an ancillary character for all his newfound significance.)
Yet, much like its predecessor, The Rose & the Dagger is ultimately a story about stories. It is inevitable that some characters will be flatter than others. Khalid and Tariq talk about who the villain is of the story, and much of Shahrzad’s actions are framed around the idea that she wants to change the narrative into which they have all been cast against their will. The book concludes with Shahrzad starting yet another of her stories, a reminder that even when one story ends, another can always begin right after it. The parallels are about as clear as Ahdieh can draw them without making the book metafictional. And this works very well for me, because when I read I like to mentally disassemble stories and turn their moving parts over in my mind to see how they work. Ahdieh’s careful craftsmanship here is like getting to watch an intricate machine whose works are visible and even enhance its overall form: you can enjoy watching it function even as you observe its mechanism of functioning. There is just something so delectable about a very deliberately-crafted, finely-tuned story.
The true fine-tuning, though, isn’t in the characters but in the plot. As I mentioned earlier, this is a fast-paced book. Ahdieh is trying to resolve a lot in a short amount of time. This is where that craftsmanship is so important. That magic carpet is genius. Shahrzad can cover vast distances in short periods of time, but it’s not a magic bullet that gets her out of every scrape. I’m so used to epic fantasy series where it takes books upon books for things to happen, but Ahdieh has none of that. For example, I was expecting the breaking of Khalid’s curse to form the climax of the book. This proves to be a red herring, however, with an entirely different chain of events forming the third act—and I love it when a book surprises me like that. The only thing better than the satisfaction of watching my expectations fulfilled is when a book takes those expectations, acknowledges they existed, and then tosses them away and gives me something even better.
The showdown between Khalid and Shahrzad on one side and Salim on the other is so excellent. It’s a thorny problem, because the former two are so invested in finding a peaceful or less-bloody resolution to the matter. They have the ability to beat Salim, but they want to defeat him through cunning rather than force. I love it. Moreover, it’s an even more compelling conflict than the need to remove Khalid’s curse, because it allows Ahdieh to show that Khalid and Shahrzad’s love is good not just for them but for the entirety of Khorasan. Finally, it’s a perfect thematic climax to Ahdieh’s Mad Max-echoing message that women are not things:
“I will not play these games with you, Salim. Where is she?”
Another smug smile. “Have you lost something of import, nephew?”
At that, Tariq took a step forward. The captain of the guard lifted a hand to stop him.
“I have not lost a thing, Salim Ali el-Sharif….”
Yeah, I did a fist-pump when I read that. It’s such a great exchange. It wasn’t long ago that Tariq himself viewed Shahrzad as a thing: a heart to possess, a woman to hold and keep with him. Sure, he might have admired her opinionated mind or her willingness to speak it, but he acted toward her as one acts towards something one wants to capture and have. This is a pivot for him, then, a measure of how far he he has come, another example of the book rejecting the idea that women should be damsels. Ahdieh empowers all of the women in this book in varying ways, validating everything from love to a desire for power and prestige.
The Wrath & the Dawn was a powerful and exciting opening note, but The Rose & the Dagger feels like it contains the bulk of Ahdieh’s storytelling symphony. I read this in a single day. I didn’t intend to; I had other things to do and was only planning to read half-way. But I could not put this down. I needed to keep going, to find out what would happen next, to see Shahrzad and Irsa and Khalid and Tariq keep growing and changing and fucking up and making amends and kicking ass over and over again. Some books and series are a slow burn that take chapters and entire volumes to grow on you before finally paying off. This is not one of those. The Rose & the Dagger is a stunning and satisfying conclusion to the story begun in the first book, and my only regret from reading it so fast is that it is over now.