Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale: Fairy tales and being worth happy endings

Recommended for: those looking for a straightforward YA fairy tale retelling where the heroine isn’t a princess, protagonists with cheerful personalities, or a fantasy setting not inspired by Western Europe. There’s romance (it is a fairy tale, after all), but though it’s important, the experiences and decisions of the protagonist still take precedence.

Shannon Hale is going to have to join my growing list of authors whose books I wish I’d read as a kid, alongside the equally prestigious Tamora Pierce. And in stark contrast to the last book I wrote about, this story is very straightforward.

Borrowed from squeetus.com

Book of a Thousand Days is a fairy tale retelling of Maid Maleen, in which a princess was locked in a tower for refusing to marry a man her father chose for her rather than the man she loved–except this version has a few echoes of Cinderella and a Mongolian setting.

Dashti is a maid for the Lady Saren, a mucker who grew up in the grasslands and learned songs of healing from her mother. Her Lady chose to suffer her father’s punishment of being locked in a tower for seven years rather than accept the marriage he’d arranged, and Dashti went with her. But the man she was to marry isn’t out of her life yet, and neither is the man she wanted to marry in his place.

I’m really happy that Dashti’s narrative fits in with her circumstances–she starts off believing that the gentry are born better than commonfolk like her, that they have some innate perfection that justifies why they have an elevated position in life. As an explanation for inequality, this fits much better in this type of historical setting than more modern ideas might. It’s always nice when stories are filtered through what might have actually been believed at the time, instead of what we know now.

And of course, Dashti’s ideas start slowly changing, almost without her noticing. Because much like most peasants, she never had any contact with the gentry before she became Lady Saren’s maid. They never change dramatically, and her questioning is subtle enough that it still fits into a setting where social hierarchy is instilled pretty much from birth. But it’s enough to get her to accept where she ends up.

It’s also refreshing that a normal reaction for her is completely different from the one expected in my society–for instance, when a character insinuated that she wasn’t particularly good looking, her reaction was pretty blase. She knew exactly what she looked like, and saw no reason to take offense. I was like, thank you, for acknowledging that people can feel that way.

Also, when Lady Saren was inconsolable after being locked in the tower, Dashti wondered if it was the lot of her station to be cursed with unhappiness. I loved these kind of touches, for how much they fit into their world.

Dashti’s matter-of-fact, optimistic narrative made the work what it is. She’s had a hard life, but to her, that’s normal. That’s just the way things happened. She goes far in her duty and in fulfilling her oaths–above and beyond the call of duty, by my standards, though she saw it differently. She’s kind and giving, and when her thoughts turn ugly in the hardest of circumstances, she climbs back out of them pretty quickly–I think this is because she’s generally a happy person and finds good people to connect with, even when times are tough. But that’s just my interpretation.

Overall, a great fairy tale retelling, following an engaging protagonist with a growing sense of self-worth.

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