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Debut novel offers twist on classic folk tales

The Book Beat: Shahrzad's retelling

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Every evening, Khalid Ibn al-Rashid, the Caliph of Khorasan, takes a bride. Every morning, she is found strangled with a silk cord.

When Shahrzad al-Khayzuran’s best friend becomes Khalid’s late wife, Shahrzad volunteers to be his new bride. She hopes that her one night as Calipha will allow her to find out why he kills his wives every night, as well as exact her revenge for her friend’s death.

Inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of folktales first compiled in the eighth century, Renée Ahdieh’s first novel “The Wrath and the Dawn” has captured the imagination of young adult readers. This is a rare tale that strikes an enticing balance between luxurious prose and quick pacing, bringing the fantastical world and its characters into sharp detail.

Like her inspiration, Shahrzad survives her first night by telling a long story to Khalid on their wedding night, leaving off the end of the story and prompting him to spare her until the next night. After several nights of this, Shahrzad is captured by soldiers and taken to execution. She is saved by none other than Khalid, who declares that any that harm her will be punished as if they had harmed him. “A true plague of a girl. And yet a queen in every sense of the word”: He ensures that the kingdom will respect her position as his true chosen wife.

Meanwhile, Shahrzad’s father and first love, Tariq, from her home are looking for ways to rescue Shahrzad. Her father believes that he can use ancient magic to win her freedom, while Tariq devotes himself to overthrowing the Caliphate itself with the help of desert tribes. Tariq must decide whether his love for Shahrzad is worth plunging the country into war.

While searching for Khalid’s weaknesses and living amid court intrigue and danger at every turn, the reader gets to know Shahrzad, nicknamed Shazi, as the fierce protagonist she is, exhibited in this exchange between Khalid and his captain Jalal: “‘So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?’ ‘Shazi?’ Jalal’s grin widened. ‘Honestly, I pity the wolves.’”

Shahrzad finds herself seeing more in this troubled king than the monster she was looking for. He is fiercely protective, a lover of stories and poetry, constantly under pressure from his advisers and rival rulers.

She knows her heart is fickle, tricked by the handsome caliph, who values truth above all else. But as she gets to know Khalid, she finds it more and more difficult to justify her original plan for revenge. Could there be a reason for his wives’ deaths beyond his control?

Renée Ahdieh’s first novel is a must read for fans of fairy-tale retellings, who love strong female protagonists and are anxious for some diversity in the genre.

The sequel, “The Rose and the Dagger,” will be released in May 2016.

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