The winters rains have settled down in Oregon. The best thing to do in the cold and gray is to curl up with a book, and what would be better than a book about a warm place, like Arabia and Persia. I’ve become more interested in this area of the world since visiting it, the land of the 1001 Arabian Nights.
Djins, magic carpets, mythical beasts from Arabia and Persia, it’s a great fantasy setting that’s a distinct flavor. I’ve read a number of real life ethnographies that dispel the traditional fantasy tales into the complexity of real life, which is great, I enjoy learning about the cultures both good and bad, but I’ve always got a soft spot for an excellent fantasy adventure.
Fortunately, I’m not the only person who grew up loving those myths. There’s some great middle grade and young adult fiction that takes Arabian Nights and goes a bit farther with it. Here’s the ones that first come to mind.
First, there’s people who follow Shahrazad herself in a retelling of the famous frame tale. I’ve always liked follow Oregonian Susan Fletcher’s “Shadow Spinner”, which follows a young girl named Marjan who aspires to be like the famous Shahrazad, a story teller herself, and ends up in a position to help aide her hero. Full of side-stories, like the original myth, the characters are compelling and sympathetic.
A slightly older version, aimed more at YA, is Cameron Dokey’s “The Storyteller’s Daughter”. Shahrazad is blind and actually “reads” the stories off of long pieces of woven cloth using a magical ability in an interesting twist of the tale, and her stories told in the novel are new ones, made to match the reworking of the legend. The magic is inventive, although I don’t believe it’s as well written as “Shadow Spinner”, I ended up keeping my copy and rereading it.
Next are a couple of authors who instead of focusing on Shahrazad, just use her devise, the frame tale. Using the mythos they branch off. I recently read “The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha” by Lloyd Alexander. The shiftless Lukas spends his one coin on a storyteller and gets more than he bargained for, ending up the main character of the story itself in a strange foreign (and rather Persian-like) land. Filled with Alexander’s usual characters, they’re all vibrant and engaging with some surprising depth reminiscent of his award winning fantasy based on the Welsh myths.
Noticing he’d also written yet another Arabian type novel, I then tried Alexander’s “The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio.” Again, it had all the usual suspects as far as characters you might expect, but in a slightly different combination, and was a fully enjoyable ride. The plot had a few more serious edges to it, but was still well within a middle grade novel despite that, but I’d recommend the older end of that, 11 or 12 and up depending on the child.
By chance, a week after reading this, I read another frame tale version by Marva Dasef (another fellow Oregonian). In “The Tales of Abi-Nuwas” we take the same format with a much kinder story teller who befriends a poor girl named . He tells her the story of Setara, an Aladyn-like tale with a Jinni who answers wishes literally rather than by intent, forcing Setara to constantly pin him down to get what she wants. Also lively and with sparkling characters it uses the Arabian night heritage to good use with cameos by some of mythological figures weaved in.
Marva has a second book set in the world as well, “Quest for the Smurgh” which is also enjoyable, but felt a bit like a Lloyd Alexander book in that I recognized all the characters as familiar faces in a slightly different setting. Still, it’s a fun and cozy adventure in a warm place that fills out her fantasy world a bit more.
Then of course, there’s simply telling a new tale in the familiar setting. My aunt gifted me last Christmas with “The Legend of the Wandering King” by Laura Gallego, which reads like it could be on of those tales in 1001 Arabian Nights itself. We watch the main character embark on both an inner and outer journey as he lives out a rather epic story. It’s a bit distant in the narrative tone, but the colorful world it paints makes up for that and the older style of narration makes it seem even more like a fairy tale.
And hopefully it’ll work out for me to take a real life break between all this reading this winter to actually go visit my friend Dubai again.