The Book of a Thousand Days
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The Brothers Grimm tell the story of Maid Maleen, a resourceful girl who refuses to marry the bridegroom chosen by her father. Her stubbornness provokes her incarceration, with her maidservant, in a windowless tower for seven years to teach her sense. In time, she escapes to find the kingdom laid waste; after many adventures, she is reunited with her true love. Shannon Hale has borrowed the bones of the old tale, but fleshed them out very differently. For now it is Dashti, maidservant to the Lady Sarren, who is the story’s heroine, shielding her timorous, petulant mistress through numerous dangers to another resolution of the story. Having a fair amount of time on her hands in the tower, Dashti begins a journal; some of its pages comprise this novel.
This is a sharp tale, and Hale’s reworking hones its edges keenly. There is a difficulty of pace until the escape from the tower; a writer sets herself some challenge when her only two characters have access to the rest of the world for half the novel through a metal flap provided for waste disposal. The tension between the maidservant’s vow of duty to her mistress and her own emerging feelings as a woman provides the mainspring of the latter half of the book. The narrative has all the clean power of a traditional tale, complemented strongly by a setting which draws upon the timeless way of life of Mongolian herders, contrasted with the luxury of the cities. For Dashti is ‘a mucker’, a gher dweller of the steppes, learning from her mother the old songs which can heal mind and body; and learning also – unlike her mistress – a resilience essential to the nomadic life. Such skills and qualities sustain her through the harsh adventures which make this an unusual and exciting novel.