Author: Susan Fletcher
Narrator: Suzanne Toren
Publication: Recorded Books, 1999 (originally published by Atheneum, 1998)
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy/fairy tale retelling
Setting: Ancient PersiaDescription: Every night Shahrazad tells the Sultan a story, pausing at a suspenseful moment so that he is intrigued and lets her live another 24 hours to finish, at which point she proceeds to another cliffhanger. She has been doing this for three years and her creativity is almost exhausted. Knowing she cannot afford to repeat a story, she befriends orphaned Marjan who has developed her own modest reputation as a storyteller and may be able to augment the repertoire. Marjan greatly admires Shahrazad and yearns to assist her, at first not realizing she is involving herself in a dangerous struggle between the Sultan’s young bride and his bitter mother, as she travels secretly from the harem into the city to search for unusual stories. But once Marjan realizes her peril, she is still determined to help and winds up learning a lot about herself as well.
My Impression: This was a wonderful and suspenseful retelling of the Arabian Nights, full of intriguing and well-developed characters. I loved heroine Marjan, full of life lessons she has absorbed from her foster mother, Auntie Chava, but also bitter from her birth mother’s betrayal which left her lame. It is Auntie Chava who changes Marjan’s life by bringing her to the harem where she meets Shahrazad’s sister Dunyazad, who knows how desperate Shahrazad is to find a story the Sultan has not heard before. It is not just Shahrazad’s own life that is at stake but the young women of the country if the Sultan reverts to his previous pattern of marrying a young girl each night and executing her the next day.
Shahrazad is the real star of the book and Fletcher brilliantly conveys the intelligence, patience, and kindness that make the reader aware she would be a better ruler than her jealous and insecure husband. The author also reveals the dreadful stress Shahrazade cannot escape, even after three years of marriage and having borne three sons (in fact, she has to worry about her sons’ survival too), as she tries not merely to outwit her husband but also to educate him to be a better person, using the power of narrative.
I also liked Ayaz, an urchin who leads blindfolded Marjan around the city as she seeks stories for Shahrazad and the depiction of Shahrazad’s world, luxurious but confined. The harem is full of exactly the sort of intrigue one would expect – jealous rivals and people spying on Shahrazad (including her evil mother-in-law) and also Zaynab, an eccentric old woman who cares for pigeons on the rooftop of the palace. It is Zaynab who explains to Marjan what happened to her mother and although the information painful for Marjan to hear, there is no other way she can understand her own story.
Like the author, I have always been fascinated by this story and am surprised I had not previously come across this book. I listened to the audio version, which was excellent, due to the skilled narrator and the author’s Shahrazade-like skill in building suspense.
Source: Library. Thank you to LexLingua for the recommendation! I had a law school classmate named Chehrazade and I thought she had the coolest name ever. I look forward to recommending this to her.