Book review: The Wrath & the Dawn, Reneé Ahdieh

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. 

Someone at Penguin clearly reads my thoughts because their office kindly sent this book along at precisely the moment I was wanting to read it, thanks to the buzz building up around the title. I was promised a fascinating and compelling retelling of an incredibly old and engaging story, and that’s exactly what I got — along with some interesting twists.

The Arabian Nights were my introduction to fairytales, and the core, rooted story of Scheherazade telling stories to keep her husband alive always compelled me. I was, of course, horrified by the thought of her monstrous husband and his jealousy — for in most versions of the tale, he kills virgin bride after virgin bride out of vengeance for an unfaithful first wife — but I was also fascinated by the storytelling. I love stories, but I especially love serials and keeping audiences leaning forward for more, longing to know what happens next, and that’s precisely what Scherazade did.

In The Wrath & the Dawn, Sharzad volunteers to marry Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, for a very specific reason: Vengeance. She, like the rest of her people, is tired of seeing their despotic ruler take girl after girl from their families, only to strangle each one with a silk cord at dawn. After he kills her best friend, though, the story gets personal, and she’s determined to penetrate the palace and kill him. The obvious way to do that is, of course, the most dangerous one, so she becomes his bride in the hopes that she can keep herself alive long enough to find his weaknesses and exploit them.

Like the woman of myth she’s named for, Sharzad is incredibly clever, well-read, and talented. She’s a woman with immense autonomy and agency who’s making a conscious, dangerous, and courageous choice — and she also happens to be an excellent archer who’s interested in picking up other military disciplines like swordfighting. She’s also deeply in love with her family and committed to their welfare, and she carries a torch for her childhood love, her fiance, the man she plans to return to once she’s exacted her revenge.

But things shift as she arrives in the palace. The Caliph is a strange man, but not necessarily a cruel one in the context of his interactions with her. He’s aloof and cold, but not mean, and he listens to her stories with interest, sparing her each night until finally he declares that a threat to her is as one to him, essentially ensuring that she’ll be left alive and in peace. She struggles with conflicted emotions as she relates to the man she’s married to and her attitudes toward him shift, even as he conceals a huge secret: The story of why he killed so many young women.

Textually, this is a love story, but one of the thing that makes it stand out for me is that she doesn’t just struggle with the monstrous nature of the Caliph: She throws it in his face, she pushes him for an explanation, and she demands to be treated with respect as an equal, not as someone he can put off. She’s a sharp, assertive character living in a world where women are put down — her own handmaid, for example, is a slave, and she seems surprised to learn that.

And it treats the seemingly obligatory YA love triangle very differently, and in a way  I found quite intriguing. Instead of having this be a battle in her heart over Tariq, her childhood love, and Khalid, Sharzad simply found herself growing into a different love. The text echoes, several times, that the love of the past doesn’t always represent the future, and that her childhood love isn’t invalid by any stretch of the imagination — it’s just in her past. This is something she struggles with and comes to accept, but it’s very much not something Tariq is prepared to deal with, which creates a central conflict in the book and one I won’t get into so it can surprise you.

That decision to consciously explore the nature of love and the way your relationships to people change so quickly and compellingly as a young adult made for really fascinating reading. It both respected early love instead of cheapening it and making it seem like something you grew out of, and acknowledged that sometimes those you are deeply in love with as children aren’t the people you’re meant to be with. One character asks Tariq why he loves Sharzad and his answer is essentially ‘because,’ and the other character asks if their adventures and bond of the past are really enough to be a future. It’s a really excellent, probing question.

There’s one thing that particularly intrigues me about The Wrath & the Dawn: The conscious decision to make a rather significant shift to the origin story — the reason why the Caliph marries and then murders women is very different in this book than it is in the original myth. In conversation with Ahdieh earlier this year at Bookcon, we talked about that, and why she made that decision. Most original versions have him as “a rapey murderer,” as she put it, and when she struggled with this, her agent reminded her that she’s telling the story, and she remains in control. So she played with him as a mystical, struggling figure, shifting both depiction and perception, and it worked really rather well.

The Wrath & the Dawn was a really solid book, and one generally worthy of all the good things said about it. If you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, really meticulous scenesetting and research, a hint of fantasy, and powerful, canny ladies, this book is definitely for you.