That Inevitable Victorian Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Years from now Victoria-Margaret will be the next Queen and continue the work her ancestor Victoria I started two centuries earlier to strengthen the British Empire for all of its people and promote genetic diversity and inter-Empire politics with an advantageous marriage. First  the crown princess will have a summer of freedom for her debut season in Toronto. Although her brown skin, epicanthal fold, and freckles make her easily recognizable as the current Queen’s daughter, Margaret is able to disguise herself with the help of her natural hair and a non-royal alias.

Helena Marcus is looking forward to a quiet debut in New London and making her unspoken understanding with August Callaghan official. August wants nothing more but hopes to delay their official engagement until he can see himself clear of the American pirates plaguing his Canadian and Hong Kong Chinese family’s lumber and shipping business.

When her mother’s position as a placement geneticist brings Helena to the far more prestigious Toronto debut scene she and Margaret strike up an immediate and easy friendship with a hint of flirtation.

Spending the summer up north at the Marcus cottage near Lake Muskoka allows Margaret to see more of the Empire and to find her own place among the raucous Callaghan family. As Margaret, Helena, and August grow closer and learn more of each others’ secrets they realize they may be poised to help each other get everything they’ve long wanted in That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston’s standalone novel blends light science fiction elements in a near-future setting with the tone and style of a Victorian novel. Chapter headers including maps, society gossip pages, and correspondence serve to expand the detailed world building and highlight how deliberately and thoughtfully inclusive the Empire is (despite realistically damaging colonialism in the Empire’s distant past).

That Inevitable Victorian Thing alternates close third person point of view between Margaret, Helena, and August as all of the characters face what it means to be an adult in charge of one’s own responsibilities and, regardless of consequences, also one’s own mistakes. The voice throughout is pitch perfect for an homage to Victorian novels and works exceedingly well with the near-future world these characters inhabit.

While Margaret faces the prospect of an arranged marriage in her future, and August struggles with how best to deal with American pirates demanding protection money, Helena faces her own surprise. At eighteen every member of the Empire is able to log into the -gnet to see their full genetic profile and seek out prospective matches. When she logs in for the first time Helena is shocked by her genetic profile and uncertain what it means for her future.

Fortunately, Helena has nothing but support from her friends and loved ones. Even as this story builds toward conflict and shocks, Johnston’s tight control of the narrative serves to suggest that regardless of the outcome, these three characters will not just make it through but thrive.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a self-aware novel set in a fascinating world that is filled with wit and humor. Helena’s chemistry with both Margaret and Henry crackles despite being couched in Victorian manners and conventions. A perfect introduction to speculative fiction, a sweet romance, and a delight for fans of alternate history That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a must-read for all. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, These Broken Stars by Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the August 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

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Author Interview: E. K. Johnston on A Thousand Nights

Fairy tale retellings have always been popular. 2015 brought two delightful retellings of The Arabian Nights to YA readers. E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights is a thoughtful and subversive retelling imbued with as much magic and feminism. It has quickly become one of my favorite novels and I’m thrilled to have E. K. Johnston here to answer some questions about her novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

E. K. Johnston (EKJ): I was never one of those people who always wanted to be a writer, though in hindsight I can tell you that I spent most of my childhood LARPing The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars in my back yard woodlot. I told myself stories, but didn’t write them down. When I went to university, I started writing fan fiction, but it wasn’t until 2009, when I was finished my Masters and didn’t have final papers due in the month of November that I first tackled an original novel. I did NaNoWrimo in 2009 and 2010, completing two manuscripts that will probably never see the light of day. Then, during NaNo 2011, I wrote The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, and the rest is history. :)

MP: What was the inspiration for A Thousand Nights? What drew you to The Arabian Nights as source material?

EKJ: I really wanted to do a folktale retelling, and was piecing together a story based on Sleeping Beauty. While I was hammering out some of the world building, I realized that there was an older story I could tell, about where magic came from. That story wasn’t The Arabian Nights – it’s too old – but it was a story that could become The Arabian Nights. Then one night at work I thought “Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls when he came to my village, looking for a wife“, and that was that!

MP: This book is, appropriately, set in a desert society. How did you find and choose details to include in your story to evoke this setting? What kind of research was involved?

EKJ: Not so much research as personal experience! The deserts in NIGHTS are based on the deserts I have spent time in as a archaeologist and tourist in Jordan. The Scrub Desert is the north, and the Sand Desert is the south. The details that I used are all things that I have felt or seen or heard in the desert, particularly the way the wind picks up at sunset (though I had to leave out the children and their kites), and also the stars over Wadi Rum.

MP: Working off the last question, did any real locations help you envision the setting for this book? Did any pieces from The Arabian Nights particularly help inform the world of A Thousand Nights?

EKJ: Two in particular! The Turkish Bath in Amman, Jordan provided the feel for the scenes with the Henna Mistress, and the Umayyad palace on top of the Amman Citadel gave me the layout of the king’s qasr, though, again, the Umayyad dynasty is much too late for the setting of the book. (Sometimes you have to cheat for good architecture!)

MP: You made a deliberate choice in this book to not name the narrator and most of the characters (with a few exceptions including, notably, Lo-Melkhiin). Can you talk about your decision to avoid names in this novel?

EJK: I decided not to name any of the characters (the king doesn’t really have a name either) for two reasons. 1. We don’t know that much about Middle Bronze Age names for people who aren’t very high class, and 2. NIGHTS is, at heart, a folktale. Names always have power in folk tales, and they’re also usually pretty…general. I wanted it to be a recurring theme in the book.

MP: How did you decide which characters should be named? Since it does stand out as one of the only names in the story, can you talk about how you chose Lo-Melkhiin‘s name?

EKJ: Lo-Melkhiin is actually a title as well, and not a real name at all. I took the sounds that form the modern Arabic word for “king”, and then moved them around a bit. All languages experience phonetic shift, and so this is a good way to make a word seem older. The other names that appear in the book are also titles, Arabic (ish) words that mean exactly what the person is. The bulk of the names, though, I translated into English, for simplicity. My narrator has a name from everyone who loves her, which I think is kind of cool. The king on has two names (“the king” and “my son”), because no one likes him.

MP: One of my favorite things about A Thousand Nights is how much craft (weaving, embroidery, sculpture) and storytelling factor into the story. Did you always know that these themes with creation and story would feature in this novel?

EKJ: I did, because it’s the bedrock on which the book is written. Fairies and making always have a complementary relationship (usually bad for the maker!), so I knew that it was going to be a lot of the plot, both literally and metaphorically. And storytelling was a given, with the source material I was working with!

MP: Did you have a favorite scene to write in A Thousand Nights or a scene you are excited for readers to discover?

EKJ: I think my favourite scene to write was the hyena-murder chapter. My favourite scene in the book is the one with the talking camel, though. :)

MP: Can you share anything about your next project?

EKJ: I can! I have a companion novel for A THOUSAND NIGHTS coming out late this year. Remember how I mentioned Sleeping Beauty way up in the interview? Well that’s the companion. It’s called SPINDLE, and it takes place about 1500 years after NIGHTS (so about 500BCE), and tells the story of a kidnapping attempt that turns desperate when a curse-plagued princess proves to be almost as dangerous as she is endangered.

I also have a contemporary novel out on March 15, called EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR, which is Shakespeare and Cheerleaders (and Rape Culture).

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

EKJ: Keep writing, keep reading, keep trying. And listen. Listen really hard.

Thanks again to EK Johston for this awesome interview.

You can see more about EK Johnston and her books on her website.

You can also check out my review of A Thousand Nights.

A Thousand Nights: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Thousand Nights by E. K. JohnstonLo-Melkhiin has married many times. He has already killed three hundred girls when he arrives at a village in the desert looking for a new wife. One girl knows he will want only the lovliest girl as his new bride. She knows he will want her sister.

To make sure her sister is safe, she ensures that she will be taken in her place. She knows that she will die soon but it will be worthwhile because her sister will live. In their village she will become a smallgod; a legend to whom her relatives and ancestors will send their prayers.

But she doesn’t die her first night in the palace. Nor the next. Instead, she uses her precious, unexpected time to make sense of the dangers and beauties she finds in the palace.

Everyone agrees that Lo-Melkhiin is a good ruler. Many claim he was a good man once. No one knows what went wrong. No one knows how to change it. His newest bride might have the power to  save Lo-Melkhiin and the kingdom. But only if she can stay alive in A Thousand Nights (2015) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston stays true to the oral tradition of fairy tales in this retelling of “One thousand and One Nights” complete with the subtle changes and omissions that come from many, many tellings. Because of that it is fitting that most of the characters in A Thousand Nights have no names.

This story is also subverts many fairy tale conventions and gender roles by placing a girl not only as the protagonist but also as the hero and driving force of the story–a theme that is further underscored by this girl at the center of the novel having no name of her own.

A Thousand Nights is a quiet, understated book. Although it lacks the flash and fanfare of high action, it more than makes up for that with thoughtfully developed characters and provocative introspection throughout. The novel includes a strong emphasis on craft–the power that comes from making something both with intangible things like words in stories and also with more physical creations including embroidery, weaving, and sculpture.

With subversive themes and a strong feminist thread, Johnston creates a retelling that impressively transcends its source material to become something new. Lyrical writing and evocative descriptions complete the spell that is A Thousand Nights. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White

*This book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2015*

You can also check out my interview with the author about this book!