Book Review: The Forbidden Wish, Jessica Khoury

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

The story of Aladdin and his lamp is perhaps one of the most well-known myths attributed to the 1,001 Nights, although in fact the story doesn’t appear in original Middle Eastern versions of the story collection, and it doesn’t seem to have any Arabic or Middle Eastern roots, suggesting it may have in fact been a European ringer. Regardless of the origins, people know it well: The impoverished boy finds a lamp, rubs it, releases a djinn, and after much trial and error, Aladdin finds himself elevated to the throne with riches galore and a beautiful woman by his side. It’s been adapted and played with and retold in scores of ways since it appeared in a French translation of the Arabian Nights in the early 1700s, perhaps because there’s something about it that the West finds extremely intoxicating, in the notion that you can come from nothing and wish your way to glory.

The Forbidden Wish plays quite radically with the tale, taking it out of the box and kicking it around rather a lot, and the result is a really interesting retelling of a story that’s usually rehashed in pretty predictable ways. The name of the princess and slight details might change, but overall, Aladdin tends to follow a very familiar path. Not so in Jessica Khoury’s version of the world, which includes explorations of mythology, gender, and culture in a way that really works. Needless to say, spoilers exist beyond this point — luckily for you, the book came out last month, so you can nab a copy!

Several things almost immediately stand out about The Forbidden Wish, which is told from the djinn’s point of view, not Aladdin’s or even a dispassionate narrator. Khoury relies on some familiar and established djinn worldbuilding, including the idea that there are multiple types of djinn of varying degrees of power, that most don’t really have names understandable to humans, and that they’re extremely clever, sneaky creatures that always look for loopholes and caveats in the commands that humans give them, frustrated by being repeatedly caught and tamed by people. (Seriously, djinn, do better.)

This particular djinn has been buried underground for centuries deep inside a magical garden made from enchanted precious stones — one that the djinn made for her mistress hundreds of years ago. Yes, her mistress. Djinn are often depicted as genderless, something which really appeals to me as an exploration of gender and assumptions, or as beings that don’t particularly care about gender because it’s not relevant to their existence, or simply because it’s impossible to map djinn perceptions of gender onto human experience. At other times, they’re men. Female djinn as main characters are quite rare, and the worldbuilding behind the construction of djinn, that they’re humans either enchanted or cursed to serve as powerful supernatural beings, is pretty nifty.

Aladdin stumbles upon her lamp because he feels guided there, and when he releases her, the two begin to have a really complicated relationship that goes beyond servile demon and masterful human. Culturally, the world surrounding Aladdin is one in which djinn are hated and feared, with those who consort with them labeled as witches. Meanwhile, a repressive government forces the working class to labour in horrid conditions, and the people are restless. Aladdin and his djinn step into this dynamic with a bond that starts to resemble friendship more than a business partnership, something that she deeply fears because of how she was punished the last time she made friends with the lampholder — when she was forced to kill her queen by Shaitan, the leader of the djinn, for daring to become a close friend to a woman she loved ‘like a sister.’

It’s rare to see intense female friendships in young adult fiction, which already makes this a standout. The complexity of this relationship makes it even more intriguing, as our djinn is living with extreme guilt and a desire to avoid repeating the past, but she’s drawn into it as she associates with Aladdin more and more. Worse yet, she doesn’t just want to be friends: She’s fallen in love with him, even as she’s trying to orchestrate his marriage to the princess. Seeing her internal struggle paired with the backdrop of Aladdin’s desire to revenge himself on the regime that killed his parents and wronged the people makes for some really fantastic dramatic tension, and it also forces Aladdin to make some choices too as he tries to negotiate his relationship with the princess.

And yes, there is class war. There is class war of the most delicious sort, highlighting the fact that oppressive regimes may be socially controlling, but when low-income people unite in revolt, it’s very difficult for the ruling classes to stand against them. In a dynamic of many versus a few, the few cannot win out, especially when they’re often weakened by illusions of unstoppability and unchecked power. For the people of the city, winning a victory is about regaining their freedom, not just cementing a hold on society, like it is for the wealthy — and with more to win and lose, it is the people who win out.

Seeing Aladdin genderbent and turned into a love story of a different nature was really fascinating, and very deftly done in this case. While the djinn might have felt too anthropomorphised, that was sort of the point — in this setting, these are not creatures who reproduce with each other or birth themselves spontaneously from the cosmos, but human beings turned into djinn after the powers that be decreed that djinn would not be allowed to reproduce. The djinn’s humanity determines how she acts, loves, feels, and ultimately proves to be the deciding factor in what she does to free herself, Aladdin, and the city at the end of the story.

Image: In Desert, Horizon, Flickr