3 / 5 stars
Read in April 2020
Book #1 in The Wrath & The Dawn series
As part of my reading renaissance, one of my 2020 goals has been to catch up on some of the popular YA fantasy series from the 2010’s. My reading lagged the most mid-decade, so in researching books and authors from that time it was clear Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn series needed to be on my radar. It’s loved by readers and authors alike, and its description as a YA fantasy retelling of The Arabian Nights with a bold heroine and brooding hero in an enemies-to-lovers situation was more than enough to pique my interest.
Shahrzad volunteers to marry the wicked caliph Khalid of Khorasan, a king who takes a new bride each night only to kill her in the morning. In an attempt to discover the reason for his cruelty and and avenge her best friend who died at his hand, Sharzhad manages to stay alive by telling Khalid stories each night and ending on a cliffhanger at dawn. As this storytelling cycle continues, Sharzhad discovers that Khalid and his palace entourage are not all they seem and finds herself falling in love with him against her better judgement.
From the beginning, it’s clear Shahrzad is a clever, brave young woman who won’t go down easily if her ruse to stay alive fails. We are quickly introduced to our cast of characters through both Shahrzad’s POV and POV jumps to other characters, including the quiet and mysterious caliph Khalid; Shahrzad’s father, Jahandar, who possesses a book of magic; or Sharzhad’s first love, the dashing Tariq. It was a bit difficult to keep these characters straight at first, especially because most of them were men distinguished by a weapon or accessory they carried, but once I understood their roles it was easier reading from there. While I enjoyed the fiery Despina, Shahrzad’s royal handmaiden, I would’ve liked to see more female characters in this book. I’m hoping Shahrzad’s sister Irsa and the noblewoman Yasmine, both of whom appear in one or two short scenes in this book, play larger roles in book #2.
The first third or so of the book, Shahrzad tells stories while trying to get Khalid to reveal his secrets and struggling between her quest for revenge and her developing attraction to him. The buildup was a little slow, especially because Shahrzad tells her stories on the page as part of the dialogue. I think this was Ahdieh’s attempt to stay true to The Arabian Nights, but I would be lying if I said you need to read these stories to better appreciate the plot. There was also something missing in the early tension between Shahrzad and Khalid; though Shahrzad calls Khalid a monster, I was more afraid of his soldiers than the caliph himself; and Shahrzad’s desire for revenge faded into the background pretty quickly once it was clear Khalid wasn’t going to have her killed.
I’m a sucker for romance, so while I was shocked Shahrzad’s revenge plans disappeared so soon, it didn’t bother me very much because I love the classic enemies-to-lovers trope. I wanted Shahrzad to discover the secrets of Khalid’s locked heart, and I wanted him to see her as the intelligent and brave queen she is. The tension between them really strengthened when it went from will he/won’t he kill me to will he/won’t he kiss me. They had some serious chemistry and their strengths and weaknesses complemented one another. I was rooting for them to fall in love so much – how could they not see they’re a power couple waiting to happen?
Ahdieh does some incredible worldbuilding throughout this book that gets better and better as Shahrzad is consumed by palace life. Through the descriptions alone I could smell the royal garden, admire Shahrzad’s regal, colorful clothes, and taste the wide array of rich and decadent food served (don’t read this book while you’re hungry!). The politics of the world were complex and believable, and most importantly they refreshingly lacked the centralized court drama typical of many of YA fantasies in exchange for a wider political conflict among the regional dukes throughout Khorasan. Additionally, Ahdieh created a variety of words unique to this world for titles, clothes, food, and more, with a handy glossary at the back of the book.
The only element of the world building that really lacked for me: the magic system. I honestly kept forgetting magic existed in this world; it’s barely mentioned and doesn’t really become important until the climax of the book. It’s a pretty soft magic system that fails to engender a sense of wonder in the world and serves mostly to *spoilers* 1) explain the curse duh, 2) make the climax where Johandar destroys Rey possible, and 3) to establish Shahrzad as a special snowflake who discovers she has magical abilities. She never uses them but I’m guessing this will change in book #2.
Lastly, one of my biggest reasons for giving this book 3 stars: the way Ahdieh handled the POV jumps. While most of the story is told 3rd person limited from Shahrzad’s POV, we also get sections from Khalid, Tariq, and Jahandar with some snippets from Jalal and Rahim. These POV jumps were not defined by chapter and pulled me out of the story just as I was feeling invested in a scene. There were even moments Ahdieh seemed to stray into 3rd person omniscient POV; for example, in a scene from Khalid’s POV, it’s noted that Jalal has not seen him (Khalid) “smile like that” in a long time. This stylistic choice was very jarring and frustrating, and the POV jumps were too many. Although I understand why Tariq’s and Johandar’s POVs were included, I think the book would have been stronger if we only had Shahrzad’s and Khalid’s POVs.
If you’ve read my review this far, thank you as always – I appreciate you! If you have any YA fantasy recommendations from the 2010’s please leave them in the comments!