Series: The Wrath and the Dawn #1
Published by Penguin, Putnam Children's on May 12, 2015
Pages: 388 pages
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Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi's wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.
She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.
My subtitle for The Wrath and the Dawn: A (Whole New) World of No.
This book seemed chock-full of things I love: a good enemies-to-friends romance! something inspired by One Thousand and One Nights! and, last but not least, as an Arab-American, a story with a kickass Middle Eastern protagonist. So you can see why I fully expected to enjoy this one. I kept on seeing rave reviews for this on GoodReads and Twitter, so my hopes were way up.
But in truth? I was not the biggest fan of this book, you all, and I’m still sad about it. (Though I am not alone in my black sheep pen: Wendy was mostly underwhelmed by this, too.)
I want to begin, though, by making mention of the things I did like: Shazi is pretty excellent. She is brave, she knows how to use a bow and arrow, she’s mouthy, and she’s out for revenge. These are all qualities I very much admire in a woman. But it is precisely because she is so passionate about her beliefs at the beginning of the novel – she is there to kill Khalid and avenge all those murdered women – that I wish the resolution of this conflict had been given some more weight. (Like, I wish her feelings about Khalid had changed with actual evidence that he was not a psychopath, instead of random characters showing up and saying, “You know, he was a really sweet six year-old, these killings are so unlike him. Anyway, he’s pretty broken – won’t you heal him with your love?”) I also liked Shazi’s relationship with Yasmine and, to some extent, her relationship with Despina. The banter between Shazi and Yasmine is probably my favorite part of the book, hands down.
On the other hand, I had fairly significant trouble with the major relationship of the story (in particular, reading that relationship as a romance) as well as the prose style. The premise of The Wrath and the Dawn is pretty much that of One Thousand and One Nights, which I knew going into this one. You may also know the story: there’s a king who takes brides and murders them the next morning and a woman who keeps herself alive by telling stories. Each night, she leaves her story on a cliffhanger to ensure that she makes it to see another dawn.
Now let me be clear from the very beginning: you are going to have to do some real heavy-lifting as a storyteller to convince me that a serial murderer is a swoon-worthy lead. A romance inspired by One Thousand and One Nights is going to have to come up with some reeeaaaally innovative plot developments to actually *become* a compelling romance for me. (Some suggestions: there’s an evil twin running around! the women aren’t dead, he just needs people to believe they are! everyone died in a train crash and this isn’t the real Narnia, anyway!) In this case, the indication that “all is not as it seems” had me constantly waiting for the twist that would make Khalid into someone who was not a terrible murderer.
This moment, when it comes, comes far too late in the story for me. Additionally, it isn’t well-developed enough for me to give a happy sigh of relief and / or feel like it excuses Khalid’s wife-killing ways. It also doesn’t do much to resolve the major conflict of the novel – can Shazi love a murdering murderer who murdered her cousin? – because by the time we know Khalid’s deep dark secrets, Shazi is already in love with him. She’s conflicted about it, sure, and calls herself out on wanting to make excuses for Khalid (she can’t), but the book’s (and Shazi’s) ultimate position on Khalid seems to be something along the lines of “well, he may be a monster, but he’s MY monster.”
And I think we’re supposed to believe that he isn’t in fact a monster, but I didn’t feel that the narrative evidence was really there to support this conclusion. With better plotting and a more developed backstory, I might have felt differently. However, in some ways, it doesn’t matter: Shazi falls in love with him while never being 100% settled on the question of whether he has good reasons for his wife-killing or not. Spoiler, there are no good reasons. View Spoiler » At one point, they have a fight because things are getting hot and heavy and Shazi takes advantage of the moment to ask why all his wives had to die. Khalid gets upset and leaves and then Shazi realizes that she has hurt him and needs to apologize. When it seems totally reasonable to me to want to know this information before you initiate a meaningful sexual relationship? But this scene is actually written where Shazi is in the wrong and Khalid is right to be hurt. « Hide Spoiler
In short, I wanted there to be more work around Shazi’s attraction to Khalid (and his attraction to her). As it is, I wasn’t really convinced that any of the backstory for Khalid’s motivations mattered in a meaningful way. Additionally, I was concerned about the gendered dynamics of their relationship: Khalid is cold, withdrawn, and violent in his passions; Shazi is portrayed as an exceptional woman who’s able to break through his walls and is responsible for fixing him. (She is told, for example, that “the more a person pushes others away, the clearer it becomes he is in need of love the most.”) And this is a burden that it often laid on women. I disliked seeing it reiterated here.
Last, but not least, I was really not a huge fan of the writing or the world-building for this one. On the whole, I could have used more magic and further engagement with the stories from One Thousand and One Nights. As it was, the Arabian Nights felt more like backdrop for a romance than anything else. Additionally, I found much of the writing to be off-putting. I know that I’m alone in this – and that many thought the prose was lush and evocative – but there were lots of places where I really stumbled on the word-choice or the use of metaphor. (A good rule of thumb for me as a reader is that if I have to stop and think hard about why someone has chosen that word, it’s probably not the right word.)
Some examples: “Like the poison toying with its remedy, Shahrzad’s hands ignored her and took control.” (Does poison toy with its remedy? Does poison have agency?) “He said it gently, with the poise of an afterthought.” (What is the “poise” of an afterthought?) “Like a poisoned glass of wine, meant to intoxicate and exsanguinate.” (Does poisoned wine cause exsanguination?) It’s not that any of this is wrong, per se, just that the word choice seemed off to me. And this happened all the time. At another moment in the story, Khalid “shuttered his gaze” and “latched the screens shut.”
Furthermore, there are other moments where the same descriptions and metaphors are really overused – Khalid’s “tiger-eyes” make an appearance at multiple points in the story, he’s frequently described as “ice and stone,” and anytime they kiss, they are always trapping each other’s necks between their palms. (This seems to me in especially poor taste as his previous brides have all been hanged to death.) Finally, if I never have to hear a (female, obviously) character described as having “curves in all the right places” ever again, I can die happy. But that one is a pet peeve for me. Your mileage may vary.
This is to say that I know many folks were moved by the writing, but I really struggled with it. I never found it to be an immersive reading experience because I felt like I was always being thrown off-balance by the word choice and use of metaphor, as well as the general ickiness of the relationship. I know Ahdieh is a debut author, though, so I hope her next book will be better.
In any case, this wasn’t the book for me. I’m still holding out for a great story about One Thousand and One Nights – if you know any, feel free to throw them in my general direction. But lots of folks loved this, so I suspect I’m in the minority on this one. Baa.
Have you read The Wrath and the Dawn yet? What did you think?
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.