A loose retelling of The Arabian Nights frame story from Morris Award– and Kirkus Prize–finalist Johnston takes ideas of power and gender, belief and love, and upends them.
Somewhere in the pre-Islamic Middle East, an unnamed girl narrates how, with the intent of saving her beloved sister, she sets herself against a king who has already wed and killed 300 wives before the story begins. Desert spirit Lo-Melkhiin (neither djinn or afrit is used but readers familiar with Arabic tradition will recognize the mythic wellspring) has possessed a king and feeds upon human creativity; he is also the only named character throughout the novel, a bold stylistic choice that shapes the entire tone. This is a story of the unnamed and unnoticed in which women’s unrecognized power (from the prayers of the narrator’s mother, sister, and sister’s mother to the creative genius of women in the qasr, entirely overlooked by Lo-Melkhiin) provides the magic that defeats the demonic presence. Fueled by prayers and love (her family has made her a smallgod, or local deity, something usually done only after death), determined to stop the cycle of pointless deaths, the narrator tells stories that become truths, possibly including her own.
Detailed and quiet, beautifully written with a literary rhythm that evokes a sense of oral tale-telling, this unexpected fantasy should not be missed. (Fantasy. 12 & up)