This is a lovely story based on a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm called Maid Maleen. The basic elements of the stories are similar, although Hale adds a bit of Cyrano de Bergerac and Antonio Gramsci.
First let’s examine the original story of Maid Maleen. A king locks her daughter along with her handmaid into a tower for seven years as punishment for refusing to go along with his marriage plans for her: she would not marry the man he had selected for her, because she was in love with a different prince. Eventually the two girls escape, only to find the entire kingdom destroyed. They make their way to the country of the prince Maid Maleen loved. Bedraggled and unrecognized, they are hired to work in the castle kitchen, where they discover that the prince is about to be married to another. The intended, however, is “as ugly as her heart was wicked.” Eventually all the various identities are exposed, the handsome prince and Maid Maleen get together, and all’s well that ends well.
It’s a short fairy tale, and full of rich potential for expansion. Hale embellishes the tale in such a creative way that it is much enhanced while still keeping its fairy tale flavor.
In Book of A Thousand Days, the king of one of the Eight Realms (Titor’s Garden) locks his sixteen-year-old daughter Saren into a watchtower along with her lady’s maid Dashti and seven years worth of food. Saren is refusing to marry Lord Khasar, lord of Thoughts of Under, the most powerful of the Eight Realms. Saren declares she has promised herself to Khan Tegus of the lesser realm Song for Evela.
Khan Tegus comes to the small hole in the tower to talk to Saren, but Lady Saren insists that Dashti pretend to be her and talk to him instead. Dashti is filled with trepidation; commoners – especially a “Mucker” girl like she is – must never trick gentry in this way.
As Dashti explains in the journal she keeps (“the Book of A Thousand Days,”) “Muckers” are the simplest of commoners. They sing healing songs. Becoming a lady’s maid is honor, and shouldn’t be abused. The Ancestors, after all, formed the commoners from mud to serve the gentry. And when Dashti falls for the Lady’s khan, she tries her best to conceal it even from herself, not only because “just thinking of a commoner marrying gentry is a gross sin of the kind that could get me noosed on the city’s south wall and never welcomed into the eternal Realm of the Ancestors,” but because she is loyal and devoted to Saren’s happiness.
Eventually the girls escape, only to find that the entire realm has been destroyed by Lord Khasar. The two make their way to Khan Tegus’s realm, Song for Evela, and manage to get a job in the kitchen of his palace. When the Khan discovers there is a mucker girl in house, he asks for her help. Before long, he falls in love with Dashti. Saren insists not only that Dashti tell Tegus she is actually Saren, but that she even marry him in her guise as Saren. Dashti tries to refuse, but Saren just slaps her.
In the end, the truth comes out about the true identity of the girls. But Tegus still wants to marry Dashti. Since gentry and common folk can’t intermix, Tegus must argue his case before a judicial board. He cleverly presents a number of “distinguishing circumstances,” allowing the hegemony of the gentry to be maintained without an actual challenge to its legitimacy.
Dashti is a wonderful heroine: she is brave, resourceful, clever, loyal, and loving.
Khan Tegus is one of the most tender, romantic guys ever. The scenes between Tegus and Dashti, even when separated by thick tower walls, will set many a young girl to swooning.
Saren, originally selfish, manipulative and immature, finally grows up a bit, but definitely serves as a foil to the industriousness and goodness of Dashti.
Hale strikes out on a tangent from the Grimm Brothers tale when she adds class conflict to the equation of the story. In Hale’s book, we see a class domination that has been maintained by lore (allegedly passed down by the mythical Ancestors), which has the status of “scripture,” and serves to support the status quo. The story that plebeians were formed out of mud to serve the gentry, for example, has been internalized by the broad masses in the Eight Realms and has become part of common knowledge.
Although Dashti occasionally questions the justice of some of the practices that result from the separation of the classes, she would never consent to subvert the established order. When she switches identities with Saren, it is only because Saren made her raise her hand and swear to the Sacred Nine – the eight Ancestors and the Eternal Blue Sky. Nevertheless, Dashti is still extremely uncomfortable at what she rightly perceives as a form of resistance. (However, there are more than a few moments when Dashti observes with surprise that the gentry are far from the perfect beings commoners have been led to believe they are.)
The diary works wonderfully as a plot device in this book. Dashti is an excellent chronicler, and doesn’t hesitate to fill the pages not only with what happens to the girls, but with her own fears and doubts and dreams. Thus, as we read through the diary, we come to know (and love) Dashti exceedingly well. It is fitting that in the end she dons a beautiful dress that shines, because this also is an apt description of Dashti’s character.
Evaluation: Shannon Hale writes about the type of girl you hope your daughters will be, and she does it with such talent and charm, you can’t help but be enchanted.
Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2007
Note: This book has won many awards including, but not limited to:
A Book Sense Pick for Fall 2007
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults 2008
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Winner of the 2008 CYBILS award for young adult fantasy novel
An Oprah’s Book Club Kids Reading List selection
A Booklist Top 10 Youth Romance
A Junior Library Guild Selection
Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books