Renée Ahdieh’s stunning debut, The Wrath and the Dawn, is a loose retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, and follows one of my favorite protagonists of 2015, Shahrzad, as she plots to take down the Caliph of Khorasan, Khalid Ibn al-Rashid, who’s responsible for the murder of her best friend and many other unlucky young women chosen to be his brides.
I needed something epic to lift me out of my post-Carry On slump (at least I have the Internet to tell me I’m not the only one who came down with a Simon-and-Baz-induced book hangover)––and The Wrath and the Dawn delivered. Shahrzad and Khalid’s “should I kiss you or kill you” courtship satisfied my craving for a dramatic, tension-fueled love story, and then some. Even better news: there’s a sequel coming out in May 2016!
As we close out a year filled with top-notch YA debuts, let’s look back on a few things The Wrath and the Dawn has to teach writers.
(Note: there are some mild spoilers below––wait until you’ve read this book yourself if you prefer to experience it in all its glorious mystery.)
1. Style counts, so craft that prose.
Every sentence in this book is excellent. Ahdieh chooses a style that fits her subject matter perfectly––it’s serious and refined, smart and crystal-clear. There’s a confidence to her prose that mirrors the confidence of her protagonist Shahrzad, and a lushness to it that invokes her setting: a world of palaces and jewels, silks and spices.
Ahdieh’s writing reminds us that every sentence is an opportunity: to enchant our readers with a beautiful image; to reinvigorate our story with an interesting turn of phrase; to deepen our characterization with a precise observation or a surprising stylistic twist.
As writers, we may have a whole world in our minds, but we only have words to to convey it. No sentence can be a throwaway. As in The Wrath and the Dawn, make sure each one is beautiful, interesting, and true.
2. Female characters can shine, even in a male-dominated world.
A deep, abiding bond between two female friends––Shahrzad and Shiva, one of the many brides dead by Khalid’s hand––drives the story forward. Shahrzad must decide between her loyalty to her longtime best friend and the husband she’s falling more in love with every day. This friendship bond was enough to motivate Shahrzad to volunteer to be Khalid’s wife, leaving her home and her beloved Tariq. Shiva meant more to her than almost anyone in the world. Yet, despite the female friendship at its core, without Shahrzad’s clever handmaiden, Despina, this book would have likely failed the Bechdel test.
It was a savvy decision on Ahdieh’s part to pump up Despina’s character. As a servant, Despina could have been little more than a prop, there to help Shahrzad get dressed, perhaps make a joke or two about the Caliph. Instead, Despina proves to be a force in her own right, smart, strong, and beautiful, with a backstory that could make for a fascinating book, too. She offers an interesting perspective on life in the palace, and her “spy-or-friend?” status with Shahrzad provides a nice parallel to Shahrzad’s budding relationship with Khalid––not to mention a crucial touch of female companionship in a story otherwise dominated by men.
Despina’s role here reminds us to search for ways to incorporate female characters, even in male-centric settings. Shahrzad could, of course, be a prototype for a Strong Female Character. But this book is much better for its inclusion of another woman, who’s very different from Shahrzad, but strong and fascinating in her own way.
Another minor female character, Yasmine, also proves intriguing, and her banter with Shahrzad is one of the highlights of the book. Like Khalid, Yasmine seems to be a match to Shahrzad in both beauty and wit. She only appears briefly, and it’s clear there are many depths to Yasmine’s character Ahdieh has yet to plumb. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of her in Book 2…
3. Let the mystery linger.
Ahdieh is a master of withholding, not unlike Shahrzad, who uses a cliffhanger in a story to lure Khalid into letting her live another day. One hundred pages into The Wrath and the Dawn, we still don’t know much about Shahrzad’s revenge plot (or whether she even has one), why Khalid has been murdering a new bride each morning, why Shahrzad’s father believes he has the key to saving his daughter, or who, exactly, the good guys and the bad guys are.
When drafting a story, it’s tempting to give too much away, too early. We worry about confusing readers; we want these characters to be as alive to them as they are to us. But Ahdieh shows that when it comes to conveying character motivations, you can do a lot with very little. By giving Shahrzad such a weighty task––avenging her best friend’s death, even if it means sacrificing her own life––Ahdieh has made sure we’re rooting for her protagonist, even before the details of the plan are revealed.
And this mystery is exactly the thing that keeps us reading. In a series of suspensions both tiny and large, Ahdieh invites us to ask questions, then lets the answers slowly unfold. This suspense makes us feel like we, too, are right there with Shahrzad, wondering whether she’ll live to see another morning light.
Want to chat more about The Wrath and the Dawn or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.
Happy writing, all.