Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Wrath And The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

"He murdered my cousin. And now he has Shahrzad. This is a man with nothing but evil in his blood. The only thing to consider when it comes to Khalid Ibn al-Rashid is how many times I wish he could die at my hands. And how unfortunate it is that the answer is only once."

Renee Ahdieh's debut novel is an imaginative retelling of the story of Scheherazade, a Middle Eastern folktale. Scheherazade was the Arabic queen who told her husband stories to stave off being killed the next morning. In the story, known as the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, the daughter of a vizier, volunteers to marry Shahryar a Persian King who has been taking a virgin bride only to have her killed the following morning. The King began murdering his brides out of anger over the unfaithfulness of his first wife and the infidelity of his brother's wife. Believing that all women are the same, he sets out to murder each wife. Scheherazade manages to stay alive for 1001 nights, each of those nights telling a story that leaves the King wanting to learn the ending and so sparing her life. When she no longer has any stories to tell her husband, her life is spared because by this time Shahryar has fallen in love with her.

The Wrath and The Dawn opens with the murder of yet another bride of the King in the early morning. Although not explicitly mentioned, this is Shiva, Shahrzad's best friend. General al-Khoury and his son, Jalal are on the rooftop terrace of the King's palace in Rey, Khorasan when they receive word that the King's bride has just been killed. It begins to rain and Jalal tells his father that the murders cannot continue as the people are rioting. The General indicates that they must if the kingdom is to stay safe, seeming to imply that the rain is a sign of this.

Sixteen year old Shahrzad has volunteered to be the King's next bride to avenge the murder of her best friend, Shiva. As Shahrzad is being prepared for her wedding night her father, Jahandar al-Khayzuran visits her, bringing a single budding rose. Her younger sister, fourteen year old Isra, has remained at home. Shahrzad comforts her father telling him this will not be her last sunset. Strangely, the rose he gives her begins to unfurl, releasing a strong scent, then withering and dying. Then Shahrzad is led to the throne room where she meets Khalid Ibn al-Rashid, the Caliph of Khorasan.

Meanwhile, Tariq and his friend, Rahim have been out riding, accompanied by Tariq's falcon, Zoraya.When they return home, Tariq's father tells him they received a letter from Shahrzad revealing that she has volunteered to marry the Caliph in an attempt to avenge Shiva's death. Tariq is in shock because he loves Shahrzad who is his childhood friend. His father tells him they must all deal with this and that Tariq will learn to love another woman. Furious,Tariq leaves determined to save Shahrzad.

Shahrzad awaits the Caliph's appearance in her bedchamber. After they make love, in a passionless manner, Shahrzad requests that she be allowed to tell him a story and in return for explaining why she volunteered to be married to him knowing she will die at sunrise. As expected, he is captivated by her story of Agib, a poor sailor and a thief who discovers a magical chalice. Accusing her of trickery he grants her one more night to finish her story. The next morning Shahrzad meets her handmaiden, Despina who tells her she has been sent to spy on her.Despina reveals that the Caliph is so taken with her that he has assigned a member of his personal bodyguard, the Rajput, to attend her at all times. Shahrzad is told that Khalid is an excellent swordsman, meaning he is likely a brilliant strategist as well, something she will have to take into account.

Shahrzad decides to explore the palace, and along with Despina, finds herself at the training grounds. There they encounter Jalal al-Khoury, Captain of the palace guards and son of the Shahrban of Rey. Shahrzad asks Jalal to help her learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. However, Shahrzad has been expertly trained by Tariq. As they practice, Jalal tells Shahrzad that he has known Khalid since he was a small boy, and was very close to his older brother Hassan who died. His father died a year after his brother and something terrible happened to his mother. Khalid was only fourteen when he became Caliph. Jalal tells Shahrzad that she has completely unnerved Khalid and that this is a good thing. He informs her that at one time Khalid was a kind, intelligent person but is now very broken and he asks Shahrzad to help him fix Khalid.

During this time Shahrzad's father, Jahandar, and her sister have fled their home for Tariq's family home in Taleqan. Before leaving Jahandar retrieves a special book which he keeps from Isra. At night Jahandar opens this ancient blackened book written in Chagatai and begins translating it so that he can uncover its secrets. This book contains black magic that will make him strong.

His daughter meanwhile meets Khalid for a second night. After making love once again, Shahrzad realizes that after one day of being his wife, she does not see evidence of Khalid as the blood-thirsty monster she thought he was. Shahrzad continues the story from the previous night about Agib, but when she tries to move on to the next part about Aladdin and the magic lamp it is already dawn. Convinced this is a new story, Khalid does not move at first to stop General al-Khoury who has come to take Shahrzad to her death. However, Khalid intercedes and introduces Shahrzad to the shahrban as his Mountain of Adamant - a reference to the mountain of the same name in her first story. Because of the magic in the mountain, it pulled ships towards it, causing their destruction. Once in the grasp of the mountain, sailors could never free themselves and their ships broke apart and sank, killing them. Khalid recognizes now that Shahrzad is his Mountain of Adamant or his undoing.

Tariq and Rahim journey to the city of Rey and stop at the compound of Reza bin-Latief. Reza's daughter, Shiva was killed by Khalid when she became his bride and his wife died three days later. Reza tells Tariq that Shahrzad is still alive and the city is filled with speculation and rumours as to how this has come about. Tariq tells Reza he has come to rescue Shahrzad. Reza decides that he will sell everything he has to help Tariq. Tariq will be the leader of the cause to destroy the Caliph. Reza will seek out others who might be willing to support their cause such as the Emir of Karaj.When Tariq mentions that he will return home to Rey with Shahrzad's family, Reza tells him that no one knows where they have gone. The next morning Tariq tells Rahim he will leave for the Badawi tribes along the border of Khorasan and Parthia and asks him to continue on to Taleqan.

On her third morning, Shahrzad learns from Despina that the King has never sought out any of his brides until her. Despina wants to take her to a new bath, but Shahrzad decides she wants to see the swordsmanship tournament. The two watch the tournament hidden and Shahrzad realizes that Khalid will not be easy to kill as he is very skilled with the shamshir. Their presence near the tournament leads to a run-in with General al-Khoury who tells her that he sees her as a threat to the Caliph and intends to eliminate her. That night Khalid does not come to her bedchamber and in the morning, Shahrzad is dragged from her bed by soldiers. A silk chord is placed about her neck as Shahrzad realizes she is about to be executed. However, Jalal and Khalid save her at the last minute and before he leaves for Amardha, Khalid tells her that he will see that she is not harmed again. He calls her his queen.

While Khalid is away, someone attempts to murder Shahrzad by poisoning the sugar used for her tea. Whether it was Despina or someone else, Shahrzad knows she can trust no one. As queen, Shahrzad receives Khalid's first tutor, Musa Zaragoza who has come to visit the palace.  Musa inquires as to what kind of man Khalid has become and Shahrzad tells him "A joyless one. A calculating one. A bitter one..." Musa tells her the story of Khalid's mother, Leila who was his father's second wife. Leila told stories to Khalid at night just as Shahrzad is doing. However, his happy childhood ended when Khalid's father discovered his mother involved with another man and slit her throat in front of the six your old boy. Musa encourages Shahrzad to love Khalid and to help him recover from this traumatic event in his life. Musa also reveals to Shahrzad that she has a special gift, unknown to her and tells her should she wish to learn more about it to contact him. He gives her the strangest gift, a tattered rug, telling her "It is a very special carpet. When you are lost, it will help you find your way,"

When Khalid returns from his trip, Shahrzad feels herself weakening in her purpose to kill him and decides she must take immediate action. That night Khalid tells Shahrzad that because of his mother's behaviour, his right to rule as Caliph of Khorasan is called into question by the Sultan of Parthia on a regular basis. His position as heir of the caliphate was also called into question by his own father. Shahrzad is shocked. She tells Khalid that he can make amends for the attempt on her life by allowing her to go out into the streets of Rey with him and without bodyguards. Her purpose is to poison the Caliph while they are out. However, things do not go according to plan when they are accosted by a group of drunken men. Despite having the opportunity to kill the Caliph, Shahrzad cannot. As she struggles to confront the conflict raging within her own heart, Shahrzad becomes determined to know why he killed all his other brides. The shocking truth hints at a terrible fate that will befall all of Rey. And against the advice of his Uncle Aref, Khalid decides to spare the life Shahrzad, no matter the cost to himself and the people of Rey.

Discussion

The Wrath and the Dawn is one of those novels so captivating, so exquisite a story it feels impossible to wait for the sequel. That is the mark of a wonderful writer. Ahdieh is a master story-teller, weaving a tale of love and revenge, of deception and betrayal, of curses and promises. Telling a story whose ending is mostly known is challenging because it's difficult to make the story fresh and engaging. However, Ahdieh succeeds brilliantly by weaving three narratives together and developing several themes in her novel. The dominate themes in this novel seem to be those of revenge and redemption, both of which are intricately related.

Shahrzad marries the Caliph solely to avenge her best friend's horrible death. This act in itself shows her to be courageous. To accomplish her revenge Shahrzad knows she needs to survive that first night. In doing so, she shows herself to be both resourceful and intelligent. However the unexpected happens. As she learns more about this enigmatic man, Shahrzad also becomes deeply conflicted. Her hate and anger begin to be replaced by pity and then by love.

Before Shahrzad even meets Khalid she refers to him as "The monster from my nightmares." When she does meet him on their first night together she describes him as cold and forbidding, "this boy-king, this murderer". She finds him callous and arrogant. When Shahrzad meets his friend, Jalal,  he tells her that Khalid has changed greatly from when he was a boy and that now he is broken. He asks her to help him heal Khalid. Expecting Khalid to a be a bloodthirsty monster, Shahrzad quickly realizes that she does not fear him because he is not as she expected. "In the single day she'd been his wife, she'd seen remarkably little of the bloodthirsty monster she'd expected."  When Khalid visits her,  after the attempt by the soldiers to hang her, his kindness towards her makes Shahrzad realize that she is attracted to him and wants to kiss him. "As he placed his palm against the side of her face, Shahrzad realized something horrifying. She wanted to kiss him...It was one thing to return his kiss; she'd been prepared for that. But it was another thing entirely to want his kiss...another thing entirely to desire his affections. To melt into the arms of Shiva's killer at the first sign of adversity."

Shahrzad is horrified to find herself developing an attraction towards Khalid. After she learns from Musa, his tutor, of the trauma Khalid endured as a child, she is encouraged by Musa to love Khalid. He tells her, "In my life, the one thing I have learned above all is that no individual can reach the height of their potential without the love of others. We are not meant to be alone, Shahrzad. The more a person pushes others away, the clearer it becomes he is in need of love the most."

As Shahrzad's heart begins to betray her and Shiva, she struggles with the contrasting emotions of shame and desire. "How can I desire him? After he killed Shiva? After he killed so many young girls, without explanation?" Following the passionate kiss in the souk, Shahrzad is forced to admit that her heart is beginning to betray her. "Caring about him meant he had real power over her. That he held sway over her heart." As her feelings for Khalid deepen, Shahrzad's conflict deepens. "She was not here to spend time troubling about her appearance. Such childishness was beneath her. She had come to the palace with a single-minded purpose: to discover her enemy's weakness and destroy him with it."

Because his actions towards her are inconsistent with his behaviour towards his previous brides, Shahrzad is determined to learn the reason he is murdering his brides. She is certain that "Khalid Ibn al-Rashid was not a madman from line of murdering madmen, hell-bent on a senseless brutality. He was a boy with secrets." Shahrzad promises herself she will "discover the truth and seek justice" for Shiva. When Shahrzad asks him to tell her his terrible secret while they begin making love, Khalid angrily refuses leading Shahrzad to know for certain that she is his one true weakness. But at this point she is still determined to learn the secret and destroy him.

When she discovers Khalid's terrible grief over the deaths of each of his brides and learns the number of women he has killed she is filled with horror. Shahrzad realises that she was hoping there would be a reason for the murders but when she cannot find one she is determined to follow through, despite her love for Khalid. 

When Shahrzad learns of Khalid's terrible secret sheis horrified. Khalid however is determined to protect her and his kingdom until he learns of Shahrzad's love for Tariq. When he offers himself to her so Shahrzad can accomplish what she came to Rey to do, she refuses. "Hate. Judgement. Retribution. As you said, revenge will never replace what I have lost. What you have lost. All we have is now. And our promise to make it better."

Central to this story is the character of Khalid who first appears as a cold, calculating young man who seems to have no compunction about dispatching a new bride. However, as the story progresses he is revealed to be someone much more complex. Captivated by Shahrzad who does not seem repulsed nor afraid of him, Khalid is also determined to understand why she volunteered to be a bride, knowing her life is forfeit.  In Shahrzad, Khalid discovers someone he wants to be worthy of and someone he cannot live without because it would be like being without air. Khalid attempted at first to do the right thing and not do what the curse of his father-in-law indicated. But in an attempt to save his people and his kingdom, he began to do what the curse asked. Far from the cold monster he seems on the outside,  each of the women whose death's he ordered have caused him deep grief. "And you should never forgive me for what I've done. As I will never forgive myself." When he learns of Shahrzad's reason for marrying him and the death of her best friend Shiva, Khalid offers himself to her while also giving her the opportunity to escape. He is willing to die to atone for Shiva's death.

The only weakness in this novel is the absence of a list of characters to help the reader keep track of who's who. This difficulty arises because of the way in which Ahdieh tells her story, revealing bits and pieces and having three different story threads.The first story thread involves Shahrzad and Khalid, the second involves the journey of Tariq and Rahim, and the third more minor one which has the most impact on the climax of the novel is that of Jahandar and Isra. So below is a list:

Cast of Characters

General Aref al-Khoury - Khalid's uncle and head of security at the palace

Captain Jalal al-Khoury - General al-Khoury's son and Khalid's cousin, Captain of the Palace Guard

Khalid Ibn al-Rashid - Caliph of Khorasan, eighteen years old

Shahrzad al-Khayzuran - young girl who marries Khalid and tells him stories each night in an attempt to save her life and avenge the murder of her best friend

Despina - Shahrzad's handmaiden who is Jalal's lover

Jahandar al-Khayzuran - Shahrzad's father, vizier for the previous Caliph

Irsa al-Khayzurn - Shahrzad's sister

Tariq Imran al-Ziyad - son of Nasir al-Ziyad, emir of the fourth richest stronghold in Khorasan

Reza bin-Latief -  Shiva's father and Tariq's uncle

Rahim al-Din Walad - friend of Shahrzad and Tariq

Shiva

Salim Ali el-Sharif -  Sultan of Parthia
Yasmine el-Sharif - daughter of Salim and childhood friend of Khalid

Omar al-Sadiq - sixth emir of Badawi

The Rajput - a member of the Caliph's personal bodyguard

Musa Zaragosa - Khalid's first tutor

Ahdieh does include a map showing the relative locations of Khorasan and Parthia to help her readers understand the setting. At the back is a glossary of the many Arabic words used throughout the story.

Readers who have loved the Arabian Nights and who enjoy a delicious romance paired with conflict and tension will want to read The Wrath and The Dawn. At its heart, is a love story filled with redemption, forgiveness and loss. The Wrath and the Dawn is really a love story which focuses on how love can redeem even the most horrible of people.

The sequel, The Rose and the Dagger is slated for publication in 2016. Cannot. Wait.

Book Details:

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons        2015
388pp.

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