Note: I've just signed up for Goodreads! If you want to be my friend over there, click here. Can't believe it took me this long to sign up for a book reviewing community.
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Here's something true about darkness—after enough time, you begin to see things that aren't there. Faces look at me, and when I turn my head, they disappear. Colors wash themselves before my eyes, then fade away. Shiny gray dream rats dart between my feet but don't make a sound. I wanted to write this down so I can remember that those things aren't real.
My lady sees more than I do. Sometimes what she sees makes her cry.
Author: Shannon Hale
Synopsis: In this story loosely based on the Grimms' Maid Maleen, orphaned mucker Dashti goes to work as a lady's maid for the daughter of a lord. The two are immediately shut up in a tower under a seven year sentence, as punishment for her mistress' refusal to marry a terrible man. Lady Saren's suitors—one good, the other evil—come to woo her through the tiny remaining opening, and the frightened Saren commands Dashti to speak to both of them in her name. When the world outside goes silent and their food supply begins to run out, Dashti must find a way to escape, and then their adventures begin in earnest.
Notes: Shannon Hale, I love you.
I've put off reading this book for about a year, for just one reason: I'm not really fond of novels written in unusual form (journal entries, in this case.) Poetry, letters, present tense—all of those things make me hesitate when I flip through a book. Even first person POV can stop me, unless the voice is really strong. That's not to say these things are bad, just that I find them harder to get into.
But it is possible to miss very good books this way, and if the book has something else to recommend it (say, the name Shannon Hale on the cover), I may eventually give it a try. Often, as in this case, I'm glad I did.
Especially for a stand-alone book, Book of a Thousand Days contains strong, well-drawn worldbuilding. Dashti's culture, from her religion to her mucker songs to her yaks and boots, is vivid. The regions, the naming language, and other aspects of the Mongolia-based fantasy land add their color to the story without distraction or confusion.
Better yet, the storyline provides various opportunities for deeper thought, especially in its theme of self-sacrifice. I was sometimes put in mind of the author's Mormonism, but always positively; never in a preachy fashion.
But my favorite thing—and the thing that keeps me coming back to Hale's books—is the humor. Dashti kept making me laugh. Tough-girl heroines too often come across as shrewish or otherwise unpleasant; Miri, Enna, Becky, and Dashti (the four whose books I've read) are every one a delight. They're plucky, spirited, yet all different from each other. Their stories come off with a sweet balance of depth of thought and happy-go-lucky heart.
This book doesn't trump Princess Academy (the author's Newbery prize-winning work, which is an exceedingly rare object: a flawless book, in which not one splash disturbs the smooth flow of story). But it's probably my second favorite of hers. It feels good to read a book through to the end and turn the last pages with a smile. Even in young adult fiction, that joy is all too hard to find.
Recommendation: Of course I recommend it. Read it with some chocolate chip cookies if you want to maximize the fun.