***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: this is a cheesy, purple-prose-ridden, slightly annoying, but inexplicably enjoyable finish to a two-novel series.
Despite myself. The writing in this series has driven me batty from day one. The anachronisms, the flowery-formal language mixed with contemporary clichés, the Disney-movie version of medieval Arab culture--all of it made me want to cringe. But Ms. Ahdieh won me over, perhaps by giving herself wholeheartedly to the world she had built, and by not allowing the book to be anything higher-and-mightier than it is.
On the other hand, I wrote in my review of The Wrath and the Dawn that I hoped Ms. Ahdieh would address the "disturbing ethical issues she brought up in this installment," and she clearly hasn't done that. I said, "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." I suppose that means I must pronounce The Rose and the Dagger not to have serious literary merit, even though there's a slightly better balance of politics and romance in it. But still, it's quite enjoyable in the genre of "potato-chip, romance fantasy novel," like the first book, and at least we suffer through fewer descriptions of the caliph's tiger eyes.
The plot. Ms. Ahdieh long ago lost track of the premise of this story--that Khalid's curse required him to marry and kill one maiden a night to stave off the misfortune of his entire kingdom. In the first book, not killing a maiden led instantly to drought in Khorazan. Yet when he fell in love with Shahrzad and failed to kill her, there were apparently no repercussions. Instead, the destruction of Khalid's city happened at the hands of Shazi's power-obsessed father.
In this second installment, there's a wandering plot, trying to find its way to the end without distressing too many of the main characters. Shazi has been whisked away to the desert by Tariq, with Jalal's odd approval. (She'll be safer with the man going to war against Khalid than with Khalid himself?) There she reunites with her sister Irsa--a good addition to the cast, a kinder, gentler version of Shazi--and their father, who is recovering from blowing up an entire city using only his bare hands and poor Irsa's horse. We wander in the desert a bit: Shazi practices magic every night and returns to her tent to sleep away the day; Tariq doesn't notice Shazi's disappearances--even though he's obsessed by her--because, well, because it's not convenient to the plot, I guess; we meet a magical character with a pet dragon, and his aunt, Isuke, who's apparently a mighty genie, but we have no proof of that; we see Khalid spending time rebuilding libraries and giving snacks to smart little orphans while we worry he should be fortifying the city walls and rebuilding his army; Shazi learns that the only way to break a curse is to fulfill it; wait, no, Shazi and Khalid learn that if she and Khalid destroy her father's book, Artan's auntie will break the curse for them as a favor; and on and on. There doesn't seem to be a real arc to this, but we're happy to go along for the meandering ride, and it does come to a satisfying conclusion for most of the characters. (Poor Irsa, though, her lover was a redshirt.)
The dragon. Can I just say this is the biggest waste of a dragon I've ever seen in fiction? And while we're at it, Artan and his aunt Isuke can wield fire, and Vikram (the Rajput) can breathe enough heat to melt metal, and there's a book with untold (literally--Ms. Ahdieh doesn't tell us what they are) powers; and even Shazi has some powers and can ride a carpet like a surfing pro...but the magic really is not developed or used at all. Why include it, then?
Shazi's dad, Jahandar. Well, now, it turns out he's the main antagonist, doesn't it? He's at least one of the bad guys in both the first book, where he destroys Rey, and in the second, where he colludes with Khalid's uncle to rule over all of Khorazan, and then he actually stabs Khalid to death. Why don't we know more about this guy? Why don't we have a good understanding of his relationship with Shazi? It makes his immediate about-face of giving his own life in Khalid's place slightly incomprehensible to us. We get the feeling that the author wanted to ratchet up our worry by killing Khalid before giving us the happy ending, at the expense of fleshing out Jahandar's character.
Love never waivers. I have to say one very refreshing thing about this series is there is never a competing love interest, and the devotion of our characters to each other doesn't waiver. No one questions the other's love, "book-reasons" style (i.e. due to poor communication). Which makes it all the more peculiar that Ms. Ahdieh begins to introduce strife in two places, only to drop the thread: the burned letter at the beginning, in which Khalid professes his love but then destroys it, and the pretend relationship between Tariq and Shazi to appease the soldiers in the camp. We think these two events will lead to wounded lovers thinking the other has betrayed them, but they don't. (I suppose there's an argument that Khalid destroys the note because he has promised himself never to use the words "I love you," but only to show his love through deeds.)
The epilogue. Pretty cute. I like it when YA novels aren't afraid of showing marriage and children.
The writing. Ah, so...the writing.
1. Ms. Ahdieh's philosophy seems to be: why say something clearly, with simple words, when you can load it up with flowery-formal complexity instead? I don't object when the dialogue is ripe and stilted, if the author wants to build a distinctive tone for her characters: "Are you finally starting to breathe in a normal fashion?" or "Is it a matter of import?" But the narration in this book is generally so purple, it needs to take a big oxygenating breath.
--Kicking water at the ocean's edge becomes, "The boy continued to exert his irritation on the hapless sea."
--The word "hidden," as in "keeps her reasons hidden," becomes "shrouded in mystery."
--The word "emanate" is a favorite: "The soft shuffle of slippered footsteps on polished granite emanated nearby." "Soon, the sound of swords being torn from their sheaths emanated on all sides." The word "regarded" is often used instead of "looked" or "watched."
2. Excessive, unnecessary, and sometimes unhelpful explicating: "And now Shahrzad had been successfully taken unawares, to a place she was certain would bring about a predictable turn of events. Especially since Shahrzad had a sinking feeling she knew where she had been taken."
3. Clichés, many of which feel anachronistic:
--The army is at his "beck and call"
--Beg, borrow, or steal
--Without missing a beat
--Full of vim and vigor
--Turncoat (from 1557)
--Mouth (or lips) in a moue--the use of this word is only about 150 years old
--"Despina is the only reason you have a palace-rat's chance of escaping" (the expression "a rat's chance in hell" may be old--I honestly don't know--but the shortened slang version of "a rat's chance" feels very contemporary)
--Begging, bartering, and stealing my way there
4. Small mistake, but where was the copyeditor?-- When Artan is lying "prostrate" (i.e. face down), he can't also be "regarding the night sky above." Supine is the word Ms. Ahdieh needs here.
The audiobook narrator. Ariana Delawari has a sweet, frank voice, and she speaks clearly and slowly, but she has very little acting ability and no sense of lyricism or melody. There is no distinction between voices, she actually mispronounces words she could look up in the dictionary, and her performance is flat. For the first couple of hours I found myself comparing her reading to Natalie Portman's bland portrayal of Padmé Amidala.