The Book of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

the book of a thousand days by shannon hale Publication year: 2007
Genre: YA Fantasy / Fairytale retelling
Time and place: an alternate land reminiscent of medieval Mongolia
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence:My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.
Verdict: Loved it!


Summary
“You have seven years to think about disobedience. Until you are meek with regret, your face turns my stomach.”

With these words Lady Saren’s father left her, imprisoned in a dark tower, with only Dashti, her maid, for company. A fitting punishment, he thought, for refusing to marry the man her father had chosen for her, and insisting that she was betrothed to another instead.

At first, Dashti is thrilled to find herself surrounded with so much food (seven years’ worth of provisions). However, as days pass, she starts to miss the fresh air, and the sky, and the sun. The monotony is eventually broken by a visit from Lady Saren’s betrothed. But she is too shaken by her ordeal and her inner demons, so she orders Dashti to answer him and pretend she was her. It’s thus that Khan Tegus and Dashti become acquainted. They spend the next few nights laughing and talking through a hole in the wall. But then the Khan must return home, and the two prisoners are left alone again. Well, not entirely alone, as Tegus’ parting gift, upon hearing that their tower is rat infested, was a gray cat.

Their next visitor, a while later, was a lot less pleasant: Lord Khasar, the man Lady Saren was supposed to marry. He’s everything Tegus wasn’t: evil and threatening and aggressive, and Dashti understands at last why her lady has preferred life in a tower to marrying her suitor. The encounter does not go well, and Khasar leaves angrily; later that day an enormous wolf attacks, killing the guards, yet cannot enter the tower, so the girls end up scared but safe.

But time passes and the guards have not been replaced. There is no fresh food brought up, and the one already in the cellar is going fast. It becomes obvious that there is no way they could make it the full seven years, so help must be gotten, and fast. But how?

General impression
I finished the book in a single day. I liked it so much I couldn’t fall asleep until I knew how it all ended. I loved the characters, the world-building, the challenges, the writing… in a word, I loved everything about it :)

The book is written in diary form, being the journal that Dashti has kept during their imprisonment and beyond. Sometimes she even draws little sketches of the things she sees, and I liked that. Interestingly enough, the way the entries for the first few years were written reminded me of Life of Pi — while the two books are of course very different, they both feature characters whiling their days away while trapped in a bad situation, and the way they have adapted to their adversity felt quite similar at times.

Setting
The story takes place in a world similar to our medieval Mongolia (map), with only a few supernatural touches. One such thing are the muckers (Dashti being one of them), people who live in the wild and who know songs that can heal all sorts of physical and moral afflictions. I very much liked the way these songs are supposed to work: they “nudge things to be what they really are — a healthy body, a heart as calm as a baby’s in the womb“. It was an interesting idea and most importantly it was kept consistent throughout the book. My favorite bit regarding that was when (minor spoiler) Dashti manages to save a general whose soul was close to departing by singing to the latter a bunch of happy songs, reminding it how good it feels to live.

The mythology is interesting too. There are eight Ancestors, and each land is dedicated to one of them and bearing its name (a poetic form, such as Titor’s Garden or Song for Evela). The Ancestors are considered a sort of gods, and together with the Eternal Blue Sky they form “the sacred nine”. The nobility of the world, the gentry, are thought to be the offspring of the Ancestors, who then “formed commoners from mud so there would be people in the world to serve their gentry children“. Dashti firmly believes in all this, including the vast superiority of aristocracy1 over “commoners”, and I assume everyone else did too.

Characters
Lady Saren starts out as a mystery. Dashti has only met her on the day of their imprisonment and, as the Lady does not offer much information of herself, poor Dashti has no idea how to help her. It it obvious that the Lady is suffering, but since Dashti does not know the reason why she cannot choose the right song to sing. So Lady Saren spends most of the book being afraid of almost anything, and struggling to be brave. I very much loved the way the author presented her, weak and strong at the same time. Her strength is less than obvious for many pages, but, given the demons that she’s obviously fighting, the fact that she is resisting them and hanging in there must have been no easy feat. While there were many times when she has been nothing but a burden on Dashti, she was still a sympathetic character (not in the least because of Dashti’s loyalty to her), and I was happy to see her finding herself near the end of the book.

And Dashti… Dashti is the very engine that propels the book forward. Her life was tough until she met Lady Saren, and it didn’t get easier afterwards either, what with their imprisonment, and the rats in the cellar, and the lack of food, and so on. But she has an iron will and she never gives up. She’s also loyal, caring, resilient and resourceful. There is that scene in the tower, sometimes in the third year, when Dashti and Saren are all out of food. Since they are trapped there, this means they will die in a few days at the most. The situation seems hopeless, but not for Dashti:

I’ve decided. We’re going to live. It’s such a relief! I begin to feel more my mucker self just to settle my mind on it. A mucker survives. No matter that we’ve not enough food. We’ll find a way.

I admired her so much at this moment :)

Extra bonus points: she is not beautiful. Her face is disfigured by birthmarks, and yet this is not a defining characteristic for her. In fact, I doubt that anyone who met her was bothered by her face after the first few moments. She’s just so… captivating, I would say.

Unfortunately there isn’t much I can say about the main male character, the Khan Tegus. He’s flawless, and of course very likable. I very much liked seeing him interact with Dashti, as one can see that they were having fun together, but on the whole I didn’t feel like I really got to see who he is as a person. Perhaps he just needed a tiny flaw somewhere, to make him stand out :)

Thoughts on the title
Dashti and Saren’s story stretches on for almost twice as much of a thousand days, and the book (Dashti’s diary) follows them all. Now, while the title is confusing from this point of view (as there’s no book of a thousand days anywhere), I think it has something to do with something that Dashti’s mother used to say: “you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul“. Just like Dashti has finally gotten to know her lady, and just like I, the reader, have gotten to know them both by the end of the book.

Other bits I have liked:
Two of my favorite quotes, to showcase the beauty of the writing:

They weren’t nice words he said. He could’ve lived a good life and died never having made a person feel rubbed down to bones and too sad to hold together. Still, it can’t be an easy thing, guarding two girls who’ve been thrown into the rubbish heap of Under, god of tricks. I think he laughs because he doesn’t want to hurt for us.

and

Except for singing my mama into the Ancestors’ Realm, giving My Lord [the cat] to Saren was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I felt emptied, a well dug out of my chest, and as pathetic as a three-legged cricket.

Thoughts on the ending
Predictable (how else could it have ended? :) ), but I enjoyed it terribly nonetheless.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who doesn’t passionately hate the genre :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Shannon Hale’s website | Read the first few pages | The original fairy-tale

Written by the same author:
Austenland | Midnight in Austenland

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  1. as an example, when she became a lady’s maid, Dashti has sworn, among other things, that her lady won’t have to touch anything harder than water; ahe feels bound by this promise and later on she feels guilty that she wasn’t able to keep it, despite the many things she did do for Saren. []

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