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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn - Renee Ahdieh
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: the purple prose of this one nearly killed me, but the main character was feisty enough to keep me listening.
I listened to The Wrath and the Dawn in audio, and mostly for fun. Despite the serious premise, and the promise of fantasy, this book turned out to be kind of like potato chips: mostly a swoony romance, with the backdrop of politics, and lots of descriptive passages of food and clothing and tiger eyes.
The premise introduces some difficult ethical issues. A young caliph has been "forced" to marry hundreds of women, hanging them the next morning in order to stave off a curse on his city, Rey. He ends up dooming Rey anyway, when he stops killing because he has fallen in love with one of his brides, Shahrzad. This ethically compromised premise is the backdrop for the novel, but is never explored in the moral depth it deserves. (Perhaps to make it seem more YA than adult, to smooth the edges, we later learn that the caliph never consummated his previous marriages. And yet he forced himself on Shahrzad their first two nights together--what are we to make of that? More on this below.) To be a series of any literary merit, the second novel in this planned duology has its work cut out for it--it will be a disappointment if it doesn't dissect the moral quagmire that the first novel dropped us in.
An abrupt ending. I was busy cooking dinner for important guests when the ending snuck up on me. I wasn't expecting the book to be part of a series, and a fair amount happens in the last minutes, ending a bit abruptly. Let me know if I don't have this right:  I think Captain al-Khoury has sent Shahrzade away for her own safety, with Tariq, and Khalid is accepting that he can't be with her. His city is burning because he has broken the curse--he can't kill Shazi. The Sultan of Parthia is planning a coup. But I have no idea why Khalid disappeared (to some border where the White Falcon armies are amassing for a coup, as I recall...but what did he accomplish there?) while his city was burning. And his city is burning because Shazi's dad has figured out how to control his power (which involves killing innocent animals of larger and larger size). So Shazi is on her way--home? To her dad? To Omar of the Badawi?--with Tariq, having failed to tell Tariq anything good about Khalid, and that she loves her husband. (Can I just say I'm not fond of the trope where "there's no time to explain" and "it will be easier if I just go with him and explain later"?) We've left Shazi's dad, Jahandar, on the mountain top overlooking Rey, and her sister, Irsa, somewhere...I don't know...(I never really understood where she was holed up), and we have no idea where Despina is in all the mayhem (Jalal is looking for her). The magic carpet is...somewhere, and for crying out loud Shazi never used it in this book.
The prose is too flowery. Ms. Adieh uses a hundred dollar word when a two-penny one would not only work better, but in some cases would be more grammatical: "Yasmine fluttered her eyelashes at him with a skill Shahrzad could never hope to espouse."  There are altogether too many descriptions of eye color, many places where there are two similar adjectives instead of one ("[His laugh] was a loud and robust sound"), anachronisms ("Despina's lips puckered into a moue"), and romance-novel descriptions of the hot guy: "The faint shadow of hair that darkened his jaw served only to accentuate features hewn from the stone of a master sculptor." "Shahrzad stared at the cut-glass angles of his profile." It's a good thing I didn't drink a shot every time someone "shuttered their gaze." And it's not enough to exhale--you have to exhale "in a huff of derision." Don't just wave a hand--wave "a flippant hand."
On the very plus side. I really liked Shahrzade's abrasive personality. She was kind of snotty and annoying and arrogant, but it worked, and by staying true to her, Ms. Adieh made it believable that Shazi was "different" enough to make a difference.
I think I understand the wild popularity, though. This is really just a romance novel in disguise, and somehow, despite having been marketed as a YA Scheherazade re-telling, I'm guessing romance fans have found it (and romance readers are legion).
Historical patriarchy, or a mistake by a flawed character? What are we to think about Khalid consummating his marriage with Shazi while she lay still, "going away somewhere" in her head? Khalid and Shazi never really addressed that, when they finally began talking, other than his subsequently deciding not to have sex with her until she welcomed it. But he hadn't touched any of his other wives-for-a-day, so what would cause him to force himself on her twice? Was this just Ms. Adieh's nod to the patriarchal society of the time and place? Did Khalid think on the first and second night, like the Dread Pirate Roberts, "I'll most likely kill her in the morning?" But if enforcing his caliph marital rights was due to Khalid's attraction to her, and an indication of her intrigue above all other women, that's just ew.
The audiobook. Oof, the audiobook is not even okay. One of the most disappointing I've ever heard, actually. It actually does a disservice to Ms. Adieh's work. The producer would have been much better off finding a great narrator and having a Persian coach teach the pronunciation of the names and nouns. 
In sum. There's plenty of room in this YA business for many types of books, even potato-chip, romance fantasy novels like this. (See: Twilight.) And if in the future Ms. Adieh paradoxically stops trying so hard to be lyrical, her writing could settle down to something less eye-rolling. (Though with so much instantaneous outside validation, I fear not.) It remains to be seen whether Ms. Adieh will address the disturbing ethical issues she brought up in this first installment. In the end, I prefer a little more politics in my fantasy, and a little less sappy joonam.