This is the only fantasy I’ve ever read set in a version of Mongolia. My love is so fascinated by Mongolian culture that some of this has rubbed off on me, so that I was delighted recognizing bits of the culture.
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. Full Cast Audio.
Dashti, our heroine, is a Mucker, part of the native nomadic tribes of the steppes. As our story begins, she’s relating the story of how she was orphaned, failed to find another family to take her in, and so was forced to go to the city of Titor’s Garden to find work. Although large port-wine stains on her face and hand would otherwise keep her out of sight of nobility, she knows the Mucker healing songs. She’s taught to read and write and assigned as a lady’s maid to the fragile and illiterate Lady Saren, daughter of the Lord of the city. Unfortunately, Dashti has come just as Lady Saren is about to be locked in a tower for seven years. She is refusing to marry the powerful and land-hungry lord of a nearby city, the evil Lord Khasar, citing a prior engagement to Khan Tegus, lord of another city. All of Saren’s other maids have run away rather than be locked up, but Dashti is both determined to honor her vow to serve Saren and doesn’t much care if she’s locked up as long as she’s warm and fed. The book is written as her journal, started when she is first locked in the tower. At first, things go well. Dashti is resourceful; they are well-supplied with food and their guards give them fresh milk every morning. Khan Tegus visits, talking secretly at night through their waste hole. Saren doesn’t have the courage to talk to him herself and makes Dashti pretend to be her – a hanging offense that Dashti protests but ultimately goes along with. At this point, I thought we were going to have a classic love triangle a la Cyrano de Bergerac.
Then the evil Lord Khasar arrives, attempting to burn the tower up from inside after telling Saren that even though she’s too scared to reveal his horrible secret, one day she will run to him. That night, they hear terrible screams from outside the tower, and the giant jaw of a wolf pokes through the flap. After that, there are no milk deliveries, and the rats run rampant, eating up their supplies. When they are almost out of food and Lady Saren appears to have lost her mind completely – three or four years after they were originally locked up – Dashti realizes that her duty is now to rescue Lady Saren from the tower, and the story takes yet another sharp turn.
This is a character-driven story, with plenty of adventure and a beautiful setting. Dashti’s loyalty and Lady Saren’s stubbornness both got a little frustrating, but not enough for me to stop caring about the book. The Gods – the Nine Ancestors and the Eternal Blue Sky – play important roles. As in our world, Dashti prays to the gods and feels them telling her to do things, but it’s hard to tell whether things work out because of her faith in the gods or because of her own resourcefulness. The descriptions of the culture – religion, the gehrs (more commonly called yurts by westerners these days), the clothing and the food make this feel quite authentic, even if it is fantasy and maybe a little Navajo mythology is thrown in, too. This story felt to me like the reverse of the first Shannon Hale I ever read, Goose Girl. There a lady is betrayed by her maid pretending to be her, and must find a way to rescue herself. Here, Lady Saren’s forcing Dashti to pretend to be her causes such massive tangles that I couldn’t tell until it happened how Hale was going to pull it off. The audio is read full cast, which is mostly Dashti with little bits from other voice actors. The voice actor for Dashti did a wonderful job, even singing the many healing songs in a rich alto. This was a book where I rushed to find time to listen to it, and felt a wrench at saying good-bye to the characters at the end.