Book of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
Book of A Thousand Days tells the story of two young women in a fantasy version of the Asian steppes. One girl is noble, the other a commoner, and both are imprisoned in a tower, ostensibly for seven years, at the noble girl’s refusal to marry a cruel man. This book is full of romance, adventure, and suspense, and there’s even a werewolf (of sorts). I love that this book is a fantasy piece taken away from the typical faux medieval European norm. Hale’s research informs but does not overwhelm her own creation. And, importantly, this book was so much fun to read.
The entertainment value of a story is reason enough to justify its existence (yes, in spite of everything I said in my aesthetics posts), but that’s not why you should read this book. You should read this book because it will keep you from becoming a crotchety old lady (or old man) who doesn’t believe in true love, happiness, or possibility. This book will keep your soul young. Take it with your calcium supplement, and for the same reason.
I am distressed when I hear people refer to YA fiction as “fluff” or “brain candy” or “junk food.” Some of it is, but some of it isn’t. Often, people who make these sorts of comments are distracted by some of the constraints of the genre.– the ease and speed with which the protagonists fall in love, for example, or the apparent straightforwardness of decision-making. It is ironic that many works of YA fiction don’t show the angst over decision-making that so many teens feel. Or at least, it is ironic if you’re so old that you don’t remember what angst feels like, or if you’re too dim to see what the author has clearly stated. What looks like an absence of complexity in YA fiction is, in fact, often the author’s awareness of his or her audience, and the author’s willingness to trust this audience. Hale, for example, can gesture towards the nervousness that Dashti feels and trust that her teen audience, already full of nervousness about transgressing social norms, will get it. YA authors do both show and tell, but they typically don’t include great philosophical treatises as a part of their work. This is not because their craft can’t bear the weight of serious matters (all YA fiction deals with serious matters), but because YA authors have an audience whose minds are nimble enough to keep up, whose minds are capable of taking an idea and running with it– an audience that doesn’t need everything spelled out. This works nicely when discussing matters like sexual abuse, for example, (possibly implied in this piece of Hale’s, though so faintly that I may have imagined it)because the readers who are mature enough to consider it will know what Hale is talking about, but those who are still relatively innocent won’t stumble into something they’re not ready for yet. YA fiction is delightful in part because readers will honestly get out of it what they put into it. I’m not saying all YA is Finnegan’s Wake, but I am saying that some of it might be closer to For Whom the Bell Tolls than it’s given credit for.
Now, not all YA fiction is created equal, and there’s terrible and derivative stuff out there just like there is in adult fiction. However, much of this genre is worth exploring. YA fiction is a subtle, gentle art. Heaven preserve me from the sort of dull-wittedness that has to have everything expressed in graphic detail in order for me to understand, learn, or feel. Shannon Hale is an incredibly talented author, and Book of a Thousand Days is just one more piece of hers that is both edifying as well as entertaining. Let those with ears hear.