Genre: Fantasy, romance
My Rating: ★★★★ (4 of 5 stars)
Finding such a book in the landscape of contemporary literature is a difficult task, especially around the young adult parts. You have to dig through layers upon layers of rubble to get to the actual gems. Fortunately, I found one in the form of Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn—a stunning jewel in its own right, although one with facets that necessitate a little more carving, honing, and polishing.
Taking roots from the beloved classic A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn unfolds in a kingdom ruled by a brutal young caliph named Khalid, who takes a new bride every night only to have her killed at sunrise. Every day, a family mourns the loss of a daughter murdered without reason or meaning. Every day, riots rise but get easily quelled. Things only start to change when sixteen-year-old Sharzhad, whose dearest friend fell victim to Khalid, volunteers to be a bride with an underlying motive of avenging her friend.
The nightly stories that Sharzhad tells Khalid bought her several dawns, guaranteeing her survival. Things are going according to plan until she realizes that the king is not the monster that she thought he would be…and until her treacherous little heart begins falling for him. Though she teeters into surrendering to her feelings, Sharzhad decides it is an unforgivable betrayal and readies herself to take Khalid’s life despite her love for him.
Engrossing and truly “unputdownable”, The Wrath and the Dawn is brimming with intrigue, secrets, magic, and flavors that will appeal to the palate of readers who clamor for something different in the YA market.
Most of its characters are vibrant and intricate. Its abrasive heroine, for instance, balances out her fiery verve with a coldly manipulative charm; her way with words couples itself with a fairly dangerous level of cunning. But when matters relating to emotions barge in, she gets herself in a tug-of-war of decisions that she finds so difficult to win. She repeatedly scolds herself for the deplorable treachery to her friend and to dozens of other murdered girls, yet her heart screams an intelligible plea to see the good side to their executioner. I would have dismissed her as a lost cause then and there, but there is something about her that makes me root for her, despite the gigantic neon sign at the back of my mind screaming Stockholm Syndrome.
Then we have the enigmatic Khalid, unflinching wearer of the tags of a madman, a murderer, and a monster. It is tough to decode what hides beneath his impassive façade, but one revelation after another, we get a peek of the broken eighteen-year-old boy that he really is; we learn how he is trapped in a web of deceits and choices that becomes even more complex when Sharzhad steps into the picture. However, despite the reveals, I still felt like he persisted to be a half-solved puzzle in the end. I expected to close the book with a clearer grasp of his character, but other than the reasons for his actions, I see nothing else that can convince me he is fully fleshed out. I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel, if only that installment will zero in on molding him into a fuller…can we say antihero?
Among the characters, my favorite is Captain of the Guard Jalal Al-Khoury. Armed with his teasing personality, a scorching passion in protecting his family, and a stubborn resolve to see the good in people, he comes out to be a lot more likable than his cousin Khalid. As for the others, I’m going to need more prodding to even start liking them. I have always been thirsting for YA books with no love triangle in sight, so I surmise my several rounds of eye-rolls while reading about Taqir, Sharzhad’s childhood sweetheart who embarks in a journey a la-Iliad to rescue her, are only understandable. But I guess without him there would be no non-romantic conflict in the sequel (i.e. a war against a perceived ruthless ruler), so I have to give him that.
Also one of my problems with this ensemble is that there are not enough female characters who can parallel Sharzhad. An addition of one would be a welcome move in this largely masculine universe. Sure, there is the neighboring kingdom’s Yasmine, but aside from her snakelike allure and hints that she may be the yin to Sharzhad’s yang, the story gives no proof to further support it.
What I really loved about this is the world-building. Ahdieh proves to be a master in its craft. She makes turning the chapters a sensory experience—so vivid an experience in fact that the passages can substitute as tickets for the readers to the ancient realms of Middle East. With her words, I enjoyed touring the caliphate of Khorasan; I had fun basking in all its heat and hues, almost feeling the sun on my skin and almost hearing the scimitars clang against each other. I was colored curious by the intricacies of this universe. I became thirsty to learn more about Parthia and the kingdoms lying in the dunes beyond, the horsemen tribes of Badawi, the mystery of the hired assassins Fida’i, and many more.
However, there is a pitfall some portions of the story unsurprisingly trips on: purple prose. While most of the descriptions successfully helped in popping up the setting, there are parts that appear to be overdone, giving off an almost cloying effect. This extends to the adjectives for some of the characters. Khalid gets peppered with the most unflattering ones, as many of his portraits become too reminiscent of those brawny leads in old paperback romances. But hey, thanks to the novel’s curiosity-piquing plot points and turns, I managed to sift through those parts without taking a breather.
The Wrath and the Dawn, at its core, is a love story—it does not really pretend to be something else. That is the reason why it does not saturate itself with too much cutthroat politics similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, even if this is omnipresent in the novel and there is a hinted promise to tap more into that in the sequel. That is reason why the book gently carries human emotions to the writer’s playpen, poking at every feeling and mixing them altogether to bring forth varying levels of dimensionality to some of the characters involved.
I’d go out on a limb and say I enjoyed this book tremendously, even if tons of questions have all but crowded every corner of my mind while I was reading it. For specifics:
- The rape/detached sex. The fateful wedding night. Amid the discussions of whether it was rape or not (with arguments saying it was our girl who initiated it to gain Khalid’s trust even after he tells her he expects nothing more than her life at sunrise), let us just focus on Sharzhad herself. It would have been more realistic had she felt more strongly about the icy consummation of their marriage instead of just letting pass a shrug in the form of “At least he didn’t try to kiss me.” And she was a virgin, for god’s sake! I just cannot fathom why her thoughts would not linger a bit about it, even if she has perhaps long accepted it as part of her plan. It struck me as odd and…cold. It also would have been a good opportunity for the author to explore such a taboo topic.
- Stockholm Syndrome. It did not escape my notice that Sharzhad falls in love with Khalid even before she is made aware of the reason behind the killings. But I noted too, that it is in Sharzhad’s personality to seek out the good in everyone or to search for reasons before she takes action. In the process of knowing her enemy, she realizes what every other kind person around her tells her: that Khalid is not the hateful slaughterer she thinks he is. This is okay for me because it makes for a good story and a decent exploration of the characters’ “literary anatomies”. What I am uncomfortable with is the knowledge that some very young girls out there are probably reading this and contort their idea of real-life romance. Kids, this is fiction, okay? A dark one with a twistedly romantic swing, but still fiction.
- Solutions to…the reason for the bridal murders. I would not fully spoil it here, but after knowing the reason, I thought they could have made a way around it. Find a way to not kill innocent daughters and, say, choose female criminals on the death rows instead, or old people who may volunteer if they learn what the reason entails. Perhaps they have attempted it and did not work? I am awaiting mentions of it in the next book.
Four stars for an enthralling experience.