July 3, 2014

Arabian Nights: Two Retellings of Tales from One Thousand and One Nights, By Lissa Sloan, Fairy Tale Book Reviewer

In which Lissa reviews The Drowning Guard and Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.

Esma Sultan, the Sultan’s favorite sister, is ill.  She is plagued by the smells of rotting flesh and visions of drowned men.  They are her victims: her Christian lovers who spend a night with the Sultaness in her bed and are sentenced to be drowned in the Bosphorus before dawn.  When a doctor prescribes confession as a cure, Esma Sultan chooses to unburden herself to one who shares her culpability.  Ivan Postivich, a former cavalry captain demoted by the Sultan, is her drowning guard, ordered to carry out her lovers’ death sentences.  Postivich, too, is tormented by the souls on his conscience, and despises his mistress for forcing him to murder innocents.  But, as ordered, he listens as Esma tells him her story to while away her sleepless nights.

Set in Constantinople during the lead-up to the 1826 Janissary revolt against the Sultan, Linda Lafferty’s The Drowning Guard presents a detailed picture of the Ottoman Empire, complete with its opulence, diversity and contradictions.  One of these contradictions is Esma Sultan, a powerful woman who, despite her culture’s repressive attitudes toward women, exercises great influence over her brother and provides a sanctuary from the world of men for the women in her harem.   The Drowning Guard can be seen as a reverse-gender retelling of Scheherazade, with Esma Sultan as King Shahryar, sentencing a string of innocents to their deaths.  However, Esma is also Scheherazade herself, drawing Postivich into her story against his will, making him increasingly eager for the next installment, and her company.  This part of the story, with its themes of guilt and redemption, intrigued me, and had me anxious to know Esma Sultan’s secrets.  Unfortunately for fairy tale fans, the Scheherazade elements of the story wane about halfway through, leaving a story which is much more historical romance (containing some sexually explicit material) than fairy tale. While The Drowning Guard fails to fulfill its fairy tale promise, Lafferty’s lush portrayal of a fascinating place and time makes for a transporting read.

In London, young Ali bin-Massoud is far from his home in Wadi Al-Nejd.  He misses his home and family, but is grateful to his father for arranging his apprenticeship with renowned inventor Professor Charles Babbage.  He loves learning with the professor and hopes one day to be an artificer like his teacher, building complex machines.  But when a clockwork falcon delivers an intricate puzzle box with his name on it, Ali’s life begins to change.  He must return home following the death of his beloved father, pursued by sinister men trying to steal the box.  Back in Wadi Al-Nejd, Ali must deal with his jealous older brother, solve the mystery of the contents of the box, and fulfil his destiny as guardian of a cave of ancient treasure, aided by a captivating djinni.

In Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale, authors Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed retell Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in a steampunk setting.  The cave of treasure is opened, not only by magic words, but gears, pulleys, and steam power.  Travel is accomplished not only by traditional means, but also airships and mechanical camels.  The authors’ set-up of this world feels forced at the beginning, but eventually becomes more comfortable.  The steampunk setting of this Middle Eastern tale allows for an interesting exploration of magic, science, and faith, and the way they interact, but examining these themes more fully might have given the story more depth.  Aside from altering the setting and fleshing out the story and characters, the authors make few changes to the original story.  The most notable change is the origin of Morgiana, the clever servant girl who aids Ali in his conflict with the gang of thieves.  While the story’s ending is the desired one, the way it comes about feels untrue to the world of the book, so the climax lacks the emotional resonance I hoped for.  However, Ali is a resourceful, soul searching character, and he gives the story heart, making it a pleasing Arabian Night’s entertainment.

Which country or culture’s fairy tales would you like to see more of in TV, film, or book form?  Join the Enchanted Conversation and share your thoughts.  Happy reading!

Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website, lissasloan.com, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan.
Lissa's avatar, by Lissa


Teresa Robeson said...

Thanks for another fun review, Lissa! I think I'll skip that first one, but will look for the Clockwork Djinn one.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the honest and upfront review. I love hearing what works and what doesn't for readers and it definitely gives me food for thought moving forward.

While working on the book, I did post some about the research and where some of the ideas came from referencing some things more specific to fairytale origins as well as historic details that I incorporated.

I listed it as "Book Secrets" for any readers who might be interested in knowing where some of the ideas and imagery came from.


Thanks again for the review! I appreciate all feedback good and bad.

Lissa Sloan said...

Teresa, enjoy!

Day, thanks for the link! It's great to get some insight into your process:)