A slightly altered version of this review originally appeared on GoodReads.
Every once in a while, I read an epic review written by someone who was so moved, so ignited by their passionate hatred for a book, that they spew forth the most hateful torrent of words, and shape it into something hilariously beautiful, like the GR review equivalent of The Song of Solomon. Today I stand on the shoulders of the great, disgruntled GR reviewers who’ve come before me, as I try to make them proud.
You guys, I really hated this book. I hated this book so much that it gave me acne. I hated this book so much that my brain threatened to leak from my ears in a bloody ooze. I hated this book so much that, if my hatred had the power to fuel rockets, I could have launched myself into the stratosphere of Earth and made it all the way to Saturn, which is where I wish I lived now that I am forever cursed with the knowledge that this book has been so widely read.
I just want to preface the main piece of this review with a couple disclaimers:
- Please don’t confuse my searing dislike of this book for my searing dislike of the author. I don’t know anything about her. She is, most probably, a lovely human being, and I’m sure both she and her publishing team put an extraordinary amount of effort into bringing this book forth into the world.
- Many of my issues with this book could be chalked up to my personal beliefs about books and genres and writing and characters.
- YA romance isn’t exactly a great springboard for literary genius. You’re writing for a younger audience, so maybe, arguably, the themes and character motivations don’t need to be as complex.
Wait–I have some complicated feelings about that #3 point. When I was a teenager, I loved to read. I loved YA. That’s part of why I still make a point to read it now that I’m older. Teenage Me loved the genre so, so much, that I read a bunch of YA stories filled with problematic bullshit which I absorbed through my porous adolescent brain. I then went forth into the real world with said adolescent brain and tried to recreate these dysfunctional dynamics in my own relationships, since I truly believed when they arose in my YA books they constituted Good Writing, and thus, a true and potent commentary on Real Life.
That’s why I believe no art, especially not art aimed at teenagers, should be beyond reproach. We need to do better for the kids. Please, think of the children like me with their porous teen brains.
Let’s start with the plot (What plot? I hear the other 1-star reviews cry). It’s been said already, and better than I can: the plot is thin. Essentially we’re meant to believe that Shahrzad, this genius firebrand of a 16-year-old girl, is motivated by her close friend’s murder to offer herself up in marriage to the man who killed her: Kahlid, the Caliph of Khorasan (or Cahlid, the Kaliph of Chorasan, since there doesn’t seem to be much consistency in the way TWATD anglicizes Arabic or Farsi words at all… it’s been covered by more learned reviewers than me, but “calipha” is not the female term for a woman caliph. It is not, in fact, a word at all!). Also, there’s magic, or something like it, which impacts the plot and moves it forward, but is never explained in detail. That’s not a huge loss for me, since in my experience, not everything has to be understood explicitly to give it merit within the story.
Internal motivation, on the other hand, is a pretty important element that helps give merit to characters’ stories. TWATD struggles with that. Beyond the fact that Shahrzad is a sixteen-year-old, I couldn’t come up with any other reason that would explain how incredibly stupid she is–and I don’t mean “incredibly” as in “she’s just such a dumb-dumb”, I mean “incredibly” as in, I can’t believe that Shahrzad, a character presented to me as a smart, fiery girl looking to kick ass and take names, overthrow the patriarchy, and get some vengeance for her lady friend, is also somehow this utterly lost, confused girl with no plan, who’s really just acting impulsively and trying to lash out at the boy who MURDERED her friend. In order to pull off that trick, TWATD would have had to present Shahrzad with some modicum of internal conflict. Here she is, being confronted by this man she believed was a monster. She’s blinded to his humanity by the fire of vengeance burning for her dead fried. Maybe this man, this monster, slowly gains her trust and reveals himself to be a thoughtful, sensitive, complex person, causing her to rethink her hatred of his actions.
But no! Instead, BOOM—TIGER EYES! That’s what you get.
Trigger Warning from this point forward.
Khalid rapes Shahrzad twice, which is totally glossed over (except to say later on that he didn’t rape any of the other girls he killed. Good for you, Khalid, I guess even a homicidal rapist has standards), then she falls in love with him in 3 days—literally, 3 days. When I was about a quarter of the way through the book, I read other 1- and 2-star reviews that talked about the 3-day thing, and still, I did not believe it would be that bad. Surely no book–for teens, even–would put that kind of horrible, rapey, romanticized Stockholm romance forward. There must be some other explanation than the tiger eyes. The tiger eyes!
Twilight comparisons, bad riffs on some stories from 1001 Nights (so, so bad) and rape compounded with Stockholm narrative aside (seriously, it’s bad. If you think Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is even a shade problematic, stay the hell away from The Wrath & The Dawn), I was ready to stick it out for compelling female characters. Good thing there were none!
Shahrzad’s autonomy is hammered into the readers over and over again by the prose and immediately contradicted by the character’s own actions. As soon as she falls in love with Khalid, she becomes even more of a mess than she arguably was before. Everything she does is in reaction to him. She is totally crazy for this tortured asshole, even before she finds out his tragic, cursèd secret (which, I believe, the great Jake Peralta said it best: cool motive—still murder!).
The other female characters are painfully flat or just totally absent. We get to know almost nothing about Shiva, this dead girl whose friendship was so important to Shahrzad that Shahrzad risked her life just to avenge the former’s death. Shiva was apparently so important that Shahrzad spends more than a good chunk of the book silently thinking her friend’s name to herself in moments of deep personal crisis. Yet, we only get one decent flashback scene where the two interact. Essentially this gives readers nothing to go on to understand a friendship so compelling that Shahrzad was willing to give up her life for it.
Shahrzad’s sister, whose name I can’t even remember, is mentioned once or maybe twice. We know nothing about Shahrzad’s mother save that she died. Her handmaiden, Despina, is a bitchy mean girl whom Shahrzad identifies as a threat–not because Despina is a self-confessed spy but rather due to the fact that Despina does her makeup better than Shahrzad can. Yasmine, Khalid’s kind-of-but-not-really-ha-gotcha ex-fiancée has apparently put any ill will toward him to rest and wants the poor, tortured rapist and girl-murdered to be happy, but Shahrzad hates her on principle. Not because almost married Khalid, or anything, but because she’s a sexy belly dancer and Shahrzad can’t belly dance! Sad face!!
The male characters aren’t much better. The young ones have all the floridly described physical characteristics and bizarrely chromatic eyes (Khalid “flashing tiger” Caliphat; Jalal “beautiful browns” bodyguard; Tariq “sexy silver” childhood sweetheart) in addition to the coiled sinewy muscles and narrow hips that one would expect to find on a cuckoo clock figure. At least we don’t have to endure much the same in the descriptions of female characters, who are mostly “very pretty”. Oh wait, I forgot Despina’s hair, referred to throughout as “honeyed mahogany” (sounds sticky), or the fact that every single character who talks to Shahrzad is trying to convince her that she’s the subject of that One Direction song (she don’t know she’s beautiful…!).
Salim, Khalid’s “contrivedly charming” uncle, is just the worst of the bunch. He makes Jafar’s villainy look subtle. What is even the point of his barely concealed disdain for Shahrzad? Why not just make him an out-and-out asshole? It seems like the only reason he was written to be “charming” was so that Shahrzard would have the opportunity to be “alluringly feisty” in Khalid’s immediate field of perception.
I partly read this in ebook form and partly in audiobook, and I need to confess that I started out with a deep resentment toward the audiobook performer, more than the actual book. I thought she had a Shatner issue, wherein she haltingly pronounced sentences as if there were periods…and ellipses…and commas…all over the place…
I quickly realized after I picked up the ebook was actually how the text is written:
Jalal shifted the yew of his longbow from palm to palm. Ever careful. Ever calculating.
And Shahrzad’s rant died on her lips, before it even started. She wanted to turn around. Because she knew, instinctively, that he was there.
The fatigue of only a moment ago was but a distant memory. He stood taller. Breathed deeper. Felt invincible.
Her pulse raced at his warmth. In the words and the actions. The nearness of him.
Khalid was as inscrutable as ever. As cold as always.
She, too, could rage at him like a small child deprived of sweets. And then, maybe, she would not feel quite as miserable and alone as she had all day. As broken. As lost to him as she was.
I could go on. What makes it even worse is that often these passages are broken up by line, so each fragment is its own paragraph. And if you’ve read TWATD, you’ll notice these little un-sentences break out whenever a character is doing or feeling something. Call Khalid cold, and that will probably suffice to get the point across. We don’t need another fragment telling us he’s inscrutable too. The action of Jalal shifting his bow from hand to hand doesn’t need further elaboration; an intelligent reader (yes, even a teen!) should be able to intuit what this gesture means, and if not, just leave it unsaid! I beg you.
But wait, here is a scene where we should be privy to our protagonist’s inner thoughts. Instead we get this:
Shahrzad’s posture reacted to his words before her features did.
(No further description of Shahrzad’s posture reacting or how it reacted or what it reacted to is available).
This one stood out to me as particularly infuriating:
Shahrzad had wandered past this arrangement several times over the course of the last few hours.
How about this:
Khalid stood at the threshold.
Then, when he kissed her, something was wrong. He could feel her thinking. Feel her questioning. Feel her wanting . . . something else.
Or someone else.
There’s a lot of this, especially in passages where the characters are twisting, stretching, marring, and otherwise contorting their features into agonized expressions that are described in excruciating detail while doing precisely nothing to further the scene or deepen their characterization. It’s a little like the experience of reading a Days of Our Lives episode. My particular favourite is the expression “shuttered his eyes”, which comes up about half a dozen times and I imagine involves something like taking a pair of wooden panels and using a staple gun to mount them onto your face, which is something I should have done instead of reading this book.
The intention may have been to create an almost poetry-like cadence by breaking up the flow of a normal sentence. But each passage is so rife with redundancy, it feels more than heavy-handed. The word “bludgeoned” comes to mind…but why beat a dead horse when you can run over its corpse with a Sherman?
Like a canary in a gilded cage, Despina flitted about, stunning and resilient.
Oh, is Despina trapped? Like some sort of … bird?? In a confining spac—maybe a cage?! Oh, there it is. Good thing it was in there twice, because I almost didn’t get it. Also, at the same time, Despina is stunning and resilient in a way that is not at all conveyed by anything else she’s doing in this scene.
The scene where Shahrzad is left alone in Khalid’s personal quarters is (unbelievably, some may argue) even worse. The room is all blacks and whites to contrast the vividly hued decor of Shahrzad’s rooms, and also it’s empty (JUST LIKE KHALID’S SOUL, which is not a line that made it into the book, in a show of miraculous restraint or by sheer, sheer luck). The description goes on for two paragraphs, with two statements emphasizing that Shahrzad felt out of place in the room. The room is “like a prison”, in case the reader isn’t getting it, but by far my favourite line is this one:
“Like its occupant, the room appeared cold and uninviting—unlikely to offer the slightest hint of clarity.”
The room is unlikely to offer clarity? Clarity into what?
Some other passages read as baffling attempts to sound poetic, coming off as nonsensical:
”But even the moment when the leaves fall from their boughs—even that moment—has a beauty to it. A glory of its own.”
In case you missed it: EVEN THAT MOMENT.
”The perfume smelled heady and sweet—like a bouquet of aging blossoms alongside a vat of slowly melting sugar. Intoxicating and mysterious. Perhaps too much so.”
The perfume was heady and sweet, like two items that are heady and sweet. Also, it was intoxicating, which is a synonym for heady–but also, it was too much, in case you weren’t already feeling overwhelmed by the amount of redundant description.
What began as a playful kiss soon changed into something more in keeping with the prurient thoughts that had filled the space only moments before.
Here, this is a scene that is supposed to be sexy. You know what makes something really sexy? Brandishing a thesaurus in an attempt to create the most circumlocutory run-on sentence known to man!
The veil tore from its mooring as they fell back onto the cushions with complete disregard for such trappings as gossamer.
The veil tore from its mooring as they fell back onto the cushions in such total abandon that they specifically disregarded this one particular type of fabric.
When his vision cleared, everything around him appeared sharper than before.
That tends to be the result one would expect, yes.
If this progressed much further, it would be pointless to even consider such a thing as thought.
If this continued, it wouldn’t make sense to like, even think about thinking, you know?
And then there’s this:
As his fingers grasped the handle, he paused.
“Never do that to me again.” It was low and harsh.
Filled with unmitigated pain.
He slammed the door shut behind him.
Aside from the fragmented half-sentences, check out that dialogue tag. “It was low and harsh”. There was no reference before this to his voice. So it leaves the reader wondering what was low and harsh. Was it his voice? His fingers? The handle? I guess we’ll never know…
Part of the heartbreak of reading TWATD are the many instances of words being lined up together in exciting, unlikely combinations. At first glance, these are very artistic, and even appear to make sense! Given more than a half-second’s scrutiny and a basic familiarity with grammar, however…
- “Must you always be such an unapologetic bastard?” Khalid exacted in a deathly whisper.
Khalid “required/compelled” in a whisper “the manner of death”
- Shahrzad threw down the rest of the flatbread and met his gaze with stinging circumspection.
Shahrzad met his gaze with prudence or an unwillingness to take risks that somehow stung
- she exhaled protractedly
she fucking SIGHED
- The sound of footsteps amassed outside her door
a sound, i.e., an intangible, incorporeal thing, somehow created a pile of itself (??) outside her door
- His voice was rich and patently false.
his voice was clearly not true. In what way? Is he using a soundboard to communicate? Is he a ventriloquist’s dummy?
- “That sounds unduly harsh.” And appropriately fitting.
And appropriately appropriate (or, if you like, and fittingly fitting).
- All that was before her melted into amber and truth.
A fair lot of my issues with this book are stylistic. But I don’t mean that to draw attention away from the fact that the narratives in YA are really most important because of the young people reading them.
I cannot say this clearly enough: representation is important. Representation in media is important. That goes for what is covered as well as what isn’t. Yes, I want to see more protagonists who are people, especially women, of colour. Yes, I want to see more than White European/North American culture and traditionally-associated beauty traits celebrated.
But no, I do not want to see yet another romanticized depiction of abuse. No, I do not want a teenage girl to read this and think that being sexually, verbally and physically abused by her partner (who MURDERED her best friend) is fine as long as the partner is really sorry about it, or is weighed down by the emotional baggage required to justify treating other people poorly. Or that the true reason for the abuse that they enact on their partner is because of how passionately they feel about her. This already exists in the real world narratives that abusers use to justify their mistreatment of their partners.
Fantasy should be a place where we can escape from the horrifying realities of our world, from time to time. I don’t read YA to have those realities romanticized and in my opinion, neither should any young reader.