Book Review: THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh

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Notes on Diversity:
The Wrath and the Dawn is a book about a woman of color by a woman of color! Yay!

The cast is predominately Middle Eastern/North African.1 Shahrzad’s handmaiden, Despina, is Greek, and I read her as white, but she was the only character I read as white.

This is arguably a woman-centric book; a lot of people seem to think so. My opinion is a minority one, so stay tuned for that and your mileage may vary.

Readers looking for queer representation will see none here, not even in passing. This is an aggressively hetero book. Readers looking for any sort of socioeconomic/class discussions will also not see any of that here. All the characters come from wealthy families tuned into the political elite of the kingdom.

And as a note of warning, I personally found the book’s treatment of mental health a disappointment. Readers with sensitivities around suicide in particular may find the book lacking.


Review:
The Wrath and the Dawn has a lot of hype around it. It’s been extremely well-received. I was excited to read it! A retelling of 1,001 Nights centering on Shahrzad? Ok, that’s potentially tricky ground to navigate, but the reception was so warm by people whose taste I respect that I went into the book with high expectations.

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Me, with high book expectations

I am sorry to say my expectations were not met.

 

This book is so nearly-universally beloved that I have the strange experience of feeling like I must have read a completely different book than everyone else. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ok. So.

The Wrath and the Dawn is about Shahrzad and Khalid. Khalid is the Caliph of Khorasan, and he is the one that is doing all the marrying/murdering of young girls. In this version of 1,001 nights, he is young and broody and handsome. Shahrzad is young and brave and murderous. When Khalid marry/murders Shahrzad’s cousin, Shahrzad volunteers to marry him. But she has a plan to bring him down.

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This set up is pretty damn great. It works for people who love the source material (me), and it works for people who don’t. But…it only works if the problematic elements of the source material are subverted.

The quick version is that I don’t believe this book works because this is less a retelling as it is a modern version of the same story, and as the story is brought forward, so are its nasty elements. Leaving aside the stylistic quibbles I had with Ahdieh’s writing, it was her narrative choices that really rubbed me raw. Ultimately, the book is not Shahrzad’s story, but Khalid’s…and it asks us to forget, or at least not to mind, that Khalid murdered all those girls so that he can be set up as a potential love interest for Shahrzad.

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hold up, book

My issues with the book go deeper than that, substantially so, but to dig into that is spoiler territory, so I’m putting that under a cut. Feel free to continue reading if you’d like and/or if you are not spoiler-averse. I also was unnerved by Ahdieh’s handling of sexual consent, issues regarding mental health, and the overall place in the narrative for men’s agency compared to women.

2 stars

Full spoiler-y analysis begins here.

Last warning for spoilers!! ALSO CONTENT WARNINGS FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT.

OK. So. I really could not stop comparing this book to Twilight as I read it. Shahrzad was much angrier and much more engaged in the world around her than Bella Swan–she also could handle a bow, so technically she’s more a Katniss–but Khalid was a straight up Edward Cullen type, down to the amber colored eyes. Except that Edward Cullen, for all his vampirism and controlling behavior and stalking, didn’t actually kill women. Khalid did. Like, dozens of them. Which potentially makes him worse.

Seriously. So, Shahrzad gets there full of bile and rage, and within about thirty six hours she’s all swept away by his bedroom eyes and his air of mystery. I know the ways of the heart are fickle, but this was so drastically unrealistic that I just could not.

Worse than that is that Khalid chooses to consummate their marriage. There is a very dry, very primly written scene where Shahrzad admits this is happening but has no feelings about it other than stating that it isn’t pleasant. It is pretty clearly rape from my perspective. She tells a story; dawn breaks, she lives.

The second night, the same thing happens–another rape. Her handmaiden tells her that the weird thing is he never slept with any of the other married/murdered girls before. This, I think, is meant to imply she is special? I think this is meant to be romantic??

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No.

Ok, and then, there is a scene where they are growing closer, they are full on ~romantic~, they are nuzzling up, this happens:

“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Exercising restraint.”
“Why?”
“Because I failed to do so in the souk.”
“Does that matter?”
“Yes, it does,” he said quietly. “Do you want this?”
Shahrzad paused. “We’ve done this before.”

The book itself just admitted their prior sexual contact was nonconsensual. But it tried to do so in a way that made Khalid a hero for asking for consent this time instead of a villain for failing to ask for consent every time.

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That alone is enough for me to knock this book down into two-star territory. Having the protagonist’s love interest also be her rapist without any real dissection or discussion of that situation is just wrong. And irresponsible. This book contributes to rape culture. But why was Khalid Shahrzad’s love interest to begin with? She came in with one–Tariq–who seemed to literally only exist as the third leg of a rickety love triangle. Why couldn’t she have just stuck with him instead of falling for a tortured murder-boy-king?

Ahdieh goes to great lengths to make the murders of Khalid’s wives explainable. There was a curse involved. And a dead first wife–oh, she was a suicide, and that wasn’t really Khalid’s fault, either. A curse that was a tragedy, really, because his first wife was a selfish suicide who drove her father to madness.

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Very Unfortunate Implications regarding mental abound.

 

The book makes the case that Khalid’s actions (girl-marry-murdering) are understandable and that he’s really very sorry and so if you could, I don’t know, look the other way a little that would be just great. These two crazy kids could work it out!!

But, no.

Look, he is a murderer. Nowhere in the text does it suggest that he tried to find alternate solutions to his curse, but I bet that unbreakable curse gets broken in The Rose and the Dagger with no more dead wives in sight. So, the book asks us to accept Khalid as a romantic partner for Shahrzad even as the text itself handwaves away the fact that he is a killer and a rapist.

I just can’t. This isn’t new. This isn’t different. I’ve read this story a hundred times before. The fact that it’s horrifying in a boring, familiar way is horrifying in and of itself.

Ultimately, though, the book was about Shahrzad coming to accept her love of Khalid. It wasn’t really about her. It wasn’t about her growth as a person, or her arc, or her quest, or anything like that. Ahdieh uses her as a vessel to uncover truths about Khalid to make him more palatable to the reader. The book is about him.

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I came away from this book exhausted. I don’t want to read about men who kill women but who can be redeemed by the love of the right woman if she just puts up with enough of his shit long enough. I don’t want to read stories where women die by the boatload just to get the story going, just so that a man can feel enough manpain for him to fall in love and get his shit together.

The whole time I was reading Shahrzad and Khalid’s budding love story I kept thinking of all those dead girls and their fractured families. I kept wishing it was a ghost story, and that their ghosts haunted his halls.


1There is also a brief appearance by a character named Musa, who is a Moor. Musa is a literal magical negro. He shows up in the story with a friendly demeanor and twinkly eyes to humanize Khalid and to tell Shahrzad that he knows about magic and that maybe she has some. And then he bounces. That is the sum total of his contribution to the narrative. That was the only Black character in the book.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh

  1. I’m so glad to realise that I’m not the only one that didn’t like this book. I totally agree with you that the curse will be lifted in The Rose and the Dagger, and I couldn’t understand why we as readers were supposed to find him a suitable love interest. I really thought Shahrzad would go back to Tariq, because Khalid is terrible.

    I didn’t even realise I was reading rape scenes, until someone told me about it on Twitter. I found the writing quite wishy-washy and very indirect in those scenes.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Review: The Wrath and the Dawn – Renée Ahdieh – Huntress of Diverse Books

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