If you’re unfamiliar with E.K. Johnston, all you really need to know is that the author is one of the most original voices in contemporary YA. Her debut, The Story of Owen, and its sequel, Prairie Fire, were fantastical alternate histories detailing the effects of dragons on Canadian energy politics. Yes, dragons. Those two books were published by Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of the independently owned Lerner Publishing Group, known for publishing new, innovative, and unconventional voices. So some eyebrows might rise in response to Johnston’s newest offering being published by Hyperion, an imprint of the Disney Book Group.
Given the book’s premise, the association with the mouse machine may conjure visions of generic, bare-midriffed characters of the Princess Jasmine variety, but nothing could be further from Johnston’s heroine. It’s also somewhat reductive to say that Johnston’s third novel is a retelling of The Thousand and One Nights. While the basic plot points are the same – in an effort to save the life of her beautiful sister, a brave young woman volunteers to wed a murderous king who has killed hundreds of his former queens – this serves merely as a jumping-off point for Johnston. It is a starting gun that sets in motion a battle between good and evil magic in what can only be called an out-and-out reimagining.
Unlike the king in the original tale, whose thirst for blood is motivated by his first wife’s infidelity, Johnston’s monarch, Lo-Melkhiin, is possessed by an insatiable and evil desert spirit, a kind of personified mental illness that literally sucks people’s creativity and speaks directly to readers in its own chapters. Oddly, this dark magic makes Lo-Melkhiin’s murderous actions toward his wives more believable.
It is Johnston’s ability to make the fantastic seem real that allows readers to suspend their disbelief. For instance, the nameless heroine who marries Lo-Melkhiin stays alive night after night not simply because she is a talented storyteller (as in the original tale) but because she shares a magical connection with her king; a captivating trade of physical power that passes between them. The suspense grows as the pair’s relationship becomes deeper and more fraught and readers learn what is powering the heroine’s newfound magical abilities.
There are no outright spells or curses here. Instead, the writing is as subtle as smoke with the heroine’s powers emerging as strange, fuzzy, undefined things that come to her in unexpected dreams, visions, and trances. She is unsure of herself and struggles to control her newfound powers, an understandable reaction that readers will be able to imagine themselves having.
Johnston also brilliantly captures the environment and atmosphere of a desert royal court: the hot sand, the unrelenting sun, the feel of cool stone and water, the smells of incense, henna, and hair oil. It all combines to form a delicious and immersive sensory experience.
Fans of realistic fiction can be hard to convert to fantasy readers, but if anyone can do it, it’s E.K. Johnston, with her trademark brand of believable magic.