Book of a Thousand Days (2007), by Shannon Hale

Hale - book“Mama used to say, you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul” (25).

Dashti is a Mucker, a peasant from the steppes who, orphaned, seeks work in the city. She pledges herself to Lady Saren, and by choice is condemned with her lady to a seven-year imprisonment, walled up in a tower stocked with food but with only a flapped opening through which to jettison their waste. Lady Saren’s crime? In traditional narrative fashion, she refuses to participate in an arranged marriage, having promised herself to a younger, kinder man. While partaking of this trope, Book of a Thousand Days nonetheless has much that is original; Shannon Hale once again shows herself more than capable of constructing a fictional world that is both unique and internally consistent.

The Muckers’ tradition involves healing through song, a talent Dashti has been taught by her mother. When her abilities are discovered, she is taught to read and write in order to be trained as the condemned Lady Saren’s handmaiden. The story unfolds through Dashti’s diary, kept as a record of “our seven years in a tower and out adventures thereafter” (epigram). Much of the narrative is initially devoted to learning how Dashti reconciles the practicalities of imprisonment with her understanding of the duties of a handmaiden; her backstory is slowly revealed through her musings about Saren and her reflections on their predicament.

Saren is weak, both physically and emotionally, and Dashti has to be strong for them both while remaining subservient, a balance which becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Saren refuses to marry Lord Kharsan not on principle, but out of fear; the young Khan Tegus, with whom she had been exchanging letters, is a safer man to tie herself to. On some level, though, she is afraid of him as well, and insists that Dashti impersonate her when Khan Tegus comes to see if he can garner their release. Lord Kharsan visits, too, and Dashti immediately understands Saren’s fear. He is more than intimidating: he is consummately evil, revelling in their fear and promising pain and even death should Saren become his. Dashti has to revisit her assessment of Saren’s choices.

Not unexpectedly, Dashti’s impersonation of Saren plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the novel, but to say more would lessen readers’ enjoyment. We know the girls escape; they then make their way to Khan Tegus’s city, and eventually (necessarily) come to his notice. How this all unfolds matters far less than how Hale presents her characters. Dashti’s voice is believable not only for its balance of intelligence with folk wisdom, but also in its consistency: rather, in its carefully calibrated development, as Dashti learns the ways of the gentry and where her meager power can best be exercised. As she learns to navigate her new world, her unshakable sense of self is strengthened; even in her fear, she knows who she is and refuses to behave elsewise. Saren, too, undergoes change; Dashti’s songs finally help her heal, giving her the strength in turn to help Dashti in her need. The hierarchy of mistress and maid blurs, and Saren admits: “Dashti is my sister. … we spent nearly three years locked in a tower and when we came out it was as if we were … being born anew” (296-7). Dashti, too, recognizes Saren’s development:

I’d seen my lady begin to change … but never until that moment had she looked like I thought gentry should. Like anyone should. More than a thousand days we’ve been together, more than a thousand songs I’ve sung for her, and only now, I think, do I see Saren truly begin to heal. (297-8)

Saren’s healing, and Dashti’s growing awareness of her own strengths, have forged a sisterhood out their at-times tenuous relationship. They have glimpsed each others’ souls, a source of solace and healing for both.

The Reckoning: The Darkest Powers #3 (2010), by Kelly Armstrong

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 16.1.

The Reckoning

This book is deceiving.  The cover illustration, the title, and the cover blurb all suggest another lame vampire–werewolf–powerless-female triad, so wrapped up in their teenaged angst and hormones that they leave no room for plot or character development.  Not so.  The Reckoning is the third in a series (I hope a series, not a trilogy, although the jacket descriptions use both terms) that is stay-up-to-all-hours gripping.
My one criticism is that the author does not seem to know how to end a story.  Book One, The Summoning (2008) leaves the protagonists separated, captured by their enemies, with no general plan; Book Two, The Awakening (2009), reunites the protagonists then leaves them preparing to infiltrate their enemies’ secret lab; Book Three, The Reckoning (with which we are most concerned) leaves the protagonists more stable in their relationships with one another, and now—finally—aware of who is really on which side, but nonetheless begs for another sequel: the last lines are “We had a lot of work ahead of us, but a lot of adventures, too.  I was sure of that” (389).  I understand how readers, once they become involved in the characters’ lives, are loath to part from a friend, but I really miss a well-structured novel, one like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), or Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967): novels that have something to say, and say it within the confines of a narrative progression that provides closure, leaving the reader satisfied that life goes on, but this story has been told.  This, it seems, is not the way of the future…
Narrative overflow aside, the characters in Armstrong’s novels seem honest and authentic representations of teens with difficulties that they are only beginning to understand.  The level of sexual attraction is minimal—as befits early teenagers—and grows during the course of the narrative.  The lessons they learn, however accentuated by the severity of their situation, can easily be translated into young adults’ lives: be careful who you trust; the most friendly person is not always the most honest; know your strengths and weaknesses; take responsibility for your own actions and decisions; exercise your agency; bystanders can get hurt as well.  These are general lessons about navigating the world, wrapped up in a mystical fantasy set in contemporary USA.  Armstrong writes well, and balances the real with the surreal admirably.  I do hope I am right about that sequel…

Red Riding Hood (2011), by Sarah Blakey-Cartwright and David Leslie Johnson

A novelization of a new movie directed by Catherine Hardwick (Twilight saga), Red Riding Hood presents a collage of modern sensibilities and traditional fairy-tale tropes and setting.  Valerie, the protagonist, is a loner, Grandmother lives in a treehouse in the forest, apart from the rest of the village, and the two young men who vie for Valerie’s hand—Henry and Peter—represent stereotypic male types: the physically strong but psychologically weak, and the tall dark handsome “stranger.”  The plot is one of medieval persecution of the witch-hunt variety, but quite well written and engaging.  The blend of modern psychological knowledge (of Claude, the simpleton, being merely different, not cursed) with Father Solomon’s combination of righteousness and superstition creates a conflict for Valerie—and the reader—on a number of levels.  In the end, we do not know, really, who the wolf is.  Or how long it has been haunting the village. I think this was the greatest flaw in the text, for me: the werewolf story genre necessitates some sort of underlying moral, ethical, or social message, and I find this element completely lacking.  Its absence is not obvious, though, until the final pages, and throughout the text the wondering continues, as we do bond with the characters (interestingly, all of the main players).  In the end, we are left wondering how things stand to too great a degree.  I prefer a text that allows the reader to think, but arrive at a solid conclusion—even if this seems to be authorial manipulation—rather than ending the reading experience feeling that I don’t have sufficient knowledge to extrapolate into the phase space of the narrative.

I think I need to see the movie, which I suspect will lead the viewer more solidly towards an unequivocal position.

Addendum (and spoiler alert):  Having seen the movie, I am not more impressed with this interpretation of that narrative. We do discover who the werewolf is: Valerie’s father.  In saving Valerie, Peter is bitten. He leaves the community while he learns to deal with his condition, and the final sense is his return, in werewolf form, with Valerie welcoming him with an overtly sexual gaze.  The moral seems to be: no matter how violent your lover becomes, no matter what he does to others, even the werewolf can be tolerated for “love.”