Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale
Book of a Thousand Days is a 2007 Cybils finalist.
On Dashti’s first day as a Lady’s maid, she finds herself bricked into a tower for seven years. Her Lady is sealed into the tower as punishment for refusing to marry her father’s choice, and Dashti is sealed in with her to take care of her. At first, life in the tower isn’t too bad. The tower is stocked with enough food to last seven years, which is supplemented by fresh milk brought by the guards. Dashti has known real hunger, so the prospect of plenty of food to eat for seven years is a good one. Dashti finds parchment and ink, so that she can write down her thoughts and keep a journal. And even though their only link to the outside world is a small flap for emptying their waste, they soon receive a visitor at the flap: Khan Tegus, a suitor for Lady Saren’s hand.
Dashti is loyal and steadfast, and determined to do right by her Lady. But something is wrong with Lady Saren, and all the healing songs that Dashti knows can’t seem to heal her. As Lady Saren sinks further into depression, rats invade the tower, food is running out, and something strange is going on in the world outside the tower. Things are getting desperate, but Dashti is just a simple mucker and a Lady’s maid. What can she possibly do? In order to take care of her Lady, Dashti will have to make hard choices and find within herself the courage to do things that she never imagined she could do.
It’s been a long time since I stayed up too late finishing a book, but I couldn’t put this one down and I finished a little before 1 AM last night. Yes, it’s that good. Why have I never read any of Shannon Hale’s books before? Her writing is amazing, her use of language beautiful, her metaphors fresh, her characters engaging. I liked the way that the metaphors sometimes refer back to something earlier in the book. For example, when she compares thinking about something to chewing on tough meat, it recalls the earlier passage when they really were chewing on tough meat. In fact, that’s true not only of the metaphors; I felt as if every passage in the book was carefully tied to every other passage.
Dashti narrates the book through a series of journal entries, and her voice is distinct and likable. She’s just about the most selfless person you can imagine, and yet it’s a genuine selflessness, not at all contrived. She’s capable of anger and resentment, yet even when she feels those all too human emotions, she chastises herself. She knows her place; she’s a commoner and her duty is to serve the gentry. And yet she’s not a dishrag; she has an inner strength, and as the book progresses, she learns more and more to stand up for herself.
Lady Saren is everything Dashti isn’t: selfish, weak, and fearful. She requires a lot of care. And yet, she, too, develops as the book progresses.
There’s a lot of subtext about classes here. When Dashti first comes to the Lord’s house to serve Lady Saren, she’s a little afraid of meeting the gentry because she thinks the glory of the Ancestors will be so bright inside them that it will burn her eyes. But her encounters with gentry leave her wondering if they really are all that special. Yet, not all the gentry are evil or stereotyped, either.
There’s romance, too. Oh, is there romance, with a nod to Cyrano de Bergerac, as Lady Saren orders Dashti to pretend to be her and talk to Khan Tegus through the flap. Dashti can barely admit her growing feelings for Khan Tegus even to herself; not only could they never be together even if he knew it was she and not Lady Saren he was talking to, but her life would be forfeit for impersonating gentry if he ever found out.
Book of a Thousand Days is based on one of Grimm’s fairy tales, Maid Maleen, about a Lady and her maid sealed in a tower because the lady refused to marry a rich king. Shannon became interested in the maid and wanted to know more about her, yet she disappeared from the Grimm’s story. So Shannon kept mulling it over and eventually wrote what become Book of a Thousand Days. She also imbued it with a lot of the culture of Mongolia, a region which she became interested in. You can find more background about Book of a Thousand Days on Shannon Hale’s web site.