As I reflected in my review of The Sleeper and the Spindle, fairytale retellings are all the rage. With The Wrath & the Dawn, we have a new take on One Thousand and One Nights. Unlike the original, the stories within the frame story fall by the wayside, for the most part, as Shahrzad’s relationship with Khalid intensifies. Renée Ahdieh’s reimagining, then, is less about retelling the stories from One Thousand and One Nights and more about exploring that dynamic between a supposedly-cruel or vindictive king and a clever, virtuous volunteer bride. Even so, deep down, as so many stories are, this is also a story about stories and the power that stories hold over our hearts.
I know precisely when this story got me: when we learn that there is something deeper to Khalid’s executions of his wives. Though hinted at very obliquely in the beginning, this becomes more apparent later in the story, following Shahrzad’s first stays of execution. After escaping her appointments with death twice in a row, there is a tense scene where guards arrive and haul her away and very nearly garrote her … only for Khalid to rescue her at the last moment, for he had not sanctioned this execution. The exchanges that follow between Khalid and General al-Khoury, the ongoing tension whenever Shahrzad attempts to uncover the truth of things—it’s all very powerful, very suspenseful. A guy killing his bride every night and then marrying a new one is pretty terrible, so you need to have a persuasive justification if you’re going to suggest he isn’t a completely horrible person.
Indeed, The Wrath & the Dawn really casts doubt on this idea that we can assign moral signifiers to people (as opposed to actions). Khalid’s killing of his wives is an evil act, yet there is a purpose behind this act that some might view as noble. Similarly, Shahrzad marries Khalid with every intention of finding a way to kill him to avenge her best friend’s death—and while we view generally view killing as repugnant (see previous sentence), we often accept justifications such as vengeance over villains. As Shahrzad survives and she and Khalid get to know each other (or not, as Shahrzad points out much later in the novel in an incredibly touching scene), the reader is left wondering exactly where the moral high ground lies. Or was there ever any high ground to begin with?
Ahdieh leaves us with mounting certainty that somehow this is all going to end in tears. Shahrzad and Tariq seem so very much in love, to the point that Tariq is willing to stage a total rebellion against Khalid just to get her back! Yet as Shahrzad develops feelings for Khalid, and as we find out more about the mystery behind his penchant for wife-murdering, the answer to the question of “which people belong together” seems more distant rather than less.
I’m actually rather surprised I’m so into this love triangle. I think it helps that Shahrzad’s fall for Khalid is so gradual. She’s still intent on revenge halfway through the book, even as she is acknowledging her attraction to him. Also, the attraction between them is consistent with her character; she is not drawn to him just because of plot but because she is inherently drawn to risk, danger, and the prospect of the unknown. The Shahrzad who climbed trees even when she fell out of them is now the Shahrzad who will get to the bottom of the mysterious Caliph of Khorasan and his curse. Even if it kills her.
Speaking of which: what a cliffhanger! I have read some great books this year, including several that have made me want to run out and get the sequel right away. Now I have to add The Wrath & the Dawn to that list. How can you not want to jump into book 2 to find out what happens? Characters going Dark Side on us, unrest at the borders, and now a botched rescue that will doubtlessly lead to misinterpretation and tension between people who care for each other … oh man.
So this is a book with a very potent, fast-paced, suspenseful story. And it really is about stories as well. In addition to the stories that Shahrzad initially uses to beguile Khalid, there are the stories that these characters tell about themselves and others. To Tariq, Rezia, et al, Khalid is a literal monster out of myth—a boss that must be fought and defeated if the caliphate and its people are to be freed. Shahrzad begins with this opinion but then sees a new narrative: Khalid as the tortured, cursed figure, doomed to hurt the people he loves in order to save them. Ahdieh even weaves stories within the relationships between minor characters: Despina the handmaiden and Jalal the guard; Jahandar’s attempt at heroics and the immense price they extract from him. These are all old, old stories, but Ahdieh repurposes them and uses them in fresh, interesting ways. I wish Khorasan itself had been more fleshed out—other than a brief visit to the market, we don’t get much of a sense of how this country actually functions, or what its culture is like beyond “fairytale Arabic”. Then again, this is entirely consistent with the legendary tone of the book, where broad strokes setting is fine as long as the characters themselves are richer and more thought-provoking.
Not all retellings are retold equally. The Wrath & the Dawn wisely avoids hewing too closely to its roots. In so doing, it takes on a life of its own, one that definitely grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.