This is a retelling of a lesser-known fairytale (Maid Maleen) that I have been meaning to get my hands on for some time. I finally found a copy while perusing a new used bookstore in Sedona, AZ (where the parents and in-laws live) and read it over the end of last year.
The Premise: Dashti is a mucker girl who gets a job as a lady's maid on the very day that her lady is imprisoned in a tower for seven years. This is because Lady Saren refuses to marry Lord Khasar, claiming a prior engagement with another nobleman - Khan Tegus. While Lady Saren's father shouts and the other maids run away, Dashti vows to stay beside her lady. The two girls are holed up in a small tower, and Dashti begins a journal detailing their days. Both Lady Saren's suitors come by: Lord Khasar to taunt and torment them, and Khan Tegus to speak, but Lady Saren commands Dashti to impersonate her with Khan Tegus. As months go by and turn into years, the food supply dwindles and Lady Saren settles into a dark depression. Only Dashti's no nonsense attitude and faith in her gods keeps her from losing all hope herself.
My Thoughts: This is a epistolary novel told through Dashti's entries in her journal, which she names "The Book of A Thousand Days". From the get go, Dashti proves to be a heroine familiar with having to persevere when times are tough. She is a mucker - used to a nomadic lifestyle that depends on things beyond human control. She's weathered a few hardships before selling her last animal for a job in Lady Saren's household. When Lady Saren, a young girl like Dashti herself, is put in a tower by her own father, Dashti is the only servant willing to take care of her lady.
My lady was squeezing my arm so tightly now, my fingers felt cold. One of her cheeks was pink from his slap, her brown eyes red from crying. She reminded me of a lamb just tumbled out, wet all over, unsure of her feet and suspicious of the sun.
She'd be alone in that tower, I thought, and I remembered our tent when Mama died, how the air seemed to have gone out of it, how the walls leaned in, like to bury me dead. When Mama left, what had been home became just a heap of sticks and felt. It's not good being alone like that. Not good.
Besides, I'd sworn to serve my mistress. And now that her hair was fixed and her face washed, I saw just how lovely she was, the glory of the Ancestors shining through her. I felt certain that Lady Saren would never disobey her father lightly. Surely she had a wise and profound reason for stubbornness, one blessed by the Ancestors.
"Yes," I said. "I'll stay with my lady."
Then her father up and slapped me across my mouth. It almost made me laugh.
I liked Dashti a lot. Not only does she have skills for survival, but she also knows how to write and how to sing mucker healing songs. She's self-sufficient, unlike her lady, who falls apart inside the tower. Dashti is the one looking at how much food they have and rationing it, worrying about the mice, cleaning, fetching water, and going about the day to day tasks of survival. Faced with a problem, Dashti doesn't sit around - she does something. She's just as worried as Lady Saren is that they may not survive, and yes, every so often she cries and despairs, but she picks herself up and carries on.
Today I thought I would like to die, so I went into the cellar and smacked a few rats with the broom. It helped some.
As much as Dashti has skills that her lady does not, Dashti considers herself a servant and of a lower class than her lady. The class boundaries are very clear in her mind, and while others would think ill of Lady Saren for her uselessness in the tower, Dashti does not. Dashti believes in the gods and that the gentry have the mark of the Ancestors on them. It is Dashti's job as a servant to obey and make her lady's life easier. In many ways, Dashti's unwavering belief make her something of an innocent, but I found her faith and heart endearing. It made her character very pure of heart, which fit well within the fairytale structure of this story.
When Lady Saren's suitors pay them a visit at their tower, Dashti begins to realize why Saren refuses to marry Lord Khasar and prefers Khan Tegus. While Khan Tegus is likable, Lord Khasar is terrifying. Lord Khasar is a power hungry ruler who wants to take over all the Eight Realms. In this fairytale retelling, Lord Khasar is very clearly the bad guy while Khan Tegus is the Prince Charming of the tale, but the story puts a little twist to both the concepts. There is both a romance and a vanquishing in this story, and I don't want to go into it and spoil anyone's fun, but I have to say that both had me cheering. I think that the structure of the story, as a series of journal entries, forces the narrative to sometimes focus on the mundane details over action, but I never found myself bored. Instead I was charmed by Dashti's voice and her evolution from an ordinary lady's maid into someone who could be the Hero of the story. I couldn't predict what way the story was going to go, but I loved the way it unraveled.
I also loved that this story had a Mongolian influence. The Eight Realms and the Gods as Dashti knows them are clearly from Hale's imagination, but the clothing, the animals and landscape, and many other details are very Asian. There are also a lot of charming drawings that pepper the text which underline that these characters have Asian features. I really enjoyed reading a story that was so steeped in this sense of place.
Overall: This could be my favorite Shannon Hale story. I like a lot of Shannon Hale's stories, but The Book of a Thousand Days had such an endearing heroine: a maid with a big heart who is determined to take care of her lady. It was heartwarming to see such a good character get her happy ending. This hit the right "fairytale" note while mixing in fantasy and Mongolian inspired story elements. I'm calling it a keeper.
Buy: Amazon | Powell's | The Book Depository
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