In this young adult novel, Shannon Hale tells the classic princess in a tower story first by setting it in a version of medieval Mongolia, and then by inverting everything about it. The princess, Saren, is a beautiful but terrified, traumatized, and probably mentally ill daughter of gentry, completely unable even to comb her own hair. The real star of the story is Dashti, a “mucker” girl, a nomadic herder who was put out of her clan along with her mother when times got tough, who then after her mother died, gave up her freedom to get a place working for the gentry, Saren’s father. In other words, the story is about one character who has everything except capability, and one who has nothing but capability. The two get bricked into a tower together for seven years by Saren’s father when Saren refuses to marry a nightmarish and animalistic lord, Lord Khasar, having formed an attachment to another lord, Khan Tegus, whom she met when they were both children and, crucially, has not seen since.
Our heroine, Dashti, is appealing from the very beginning because when she is bricked into the tower, she is delighted to be practically on vacation, with all the food in the world provided, and only one spoiled and helpless girl to look after. She has led an incredibly hard life so far, going hungry, working to exhaustion, living on practically nothing, but she had the benefit Saren did not of a mother who loved her. Dashti’s mother also taught her the healing songs that get Dashti her job with the gentry in the first place. Unlike Saren, who does not know what to do with herself, Dashti is able to fill her days with cooking, cleaning, caring for the princess, singing, drawing, and writing in her diary. When Khan Tegus comes to visit, Saren insists that Dashti pretend to be her and speak with him through their tiny window, such that Tegus and Dashti actually end up falling in love without ever seeing each other.
I was interested in reading this novel as part of the series of books about transformative spaces that I’ve been covering this semester. Getting bricked into the tower does not really transform either girl, however. I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s complaint about the lack of character arc with many heroes, which I can’t find online (it was in a Firefly DVD commentary track, if I remember correctly) but I would paraphrase it this way: “He’s a brave and heroic man who under pressure is…brave and heroic!” Dashti remains the pragmatic one who eventually figures a way out of the tower, when the monstrous lord threatens to burn them out of it. Saren remains terrified and hopeless and incapable, even afraid of leaving the tower and facing the blue sky when she is freed. I find it very interesting that Saren’s one piece of strength lies in refusing Lord Khasar and making Dashti take her place in speaking with Khan Tegus. In other words, she adamantly opposes any interaction with these potential suitors, even when she does nothing else.
There is major character development, but it doesn’t come from the tower. The two girls make their way to the city where Khan Tegus is the lord and get work in the kitchens there. Saren eventually gets some sense smacked into her by the no nonsense kitchen staff and learns to do some work, earning herself some self-respect, while Dashti’s healing skills take her to Khan Tegus himself when he is injured. Although Dashti tells Khan Tegus she is a mucker maid, he soon realizes from her voice that she is the person he fell in love with in the tower, upon which Saren insists that Dashti lie and say she is actually Saren.
Complications ensue, but finally Dashti manages to defeat the evil Lord Khasar, takes her own identity again, and marries Khan Tegus. It’s a fairy tale ending but Dashti gets there through extreme physical danger, personal bravery, and a tremendous life-threatening conflict between her duty to obedience to Saren as gentry versus her obedience to the laws. Ultimately the two girls exchange their places in the world, a deeply satisfying conclusion given Dashti’s constant fight for survival and Saren’s weedy, spineless nature that made me want to slap her for about nine tenths of the novel.
I wondered throughout: could this novel have played out purely in the tower? Once someone is locked in a tower, escape looms pretty large on the narrative landscape. I don’t think there’s a way to tell a compelling tower story without escape being on the horizon somewhere, any more than you can tell a good generation ship story without having the ship land somewhere eventually. I keep coming back to The Count of Monte Cristo and his imprisonment, and of course The Shawshank Redemption, another terrific story of unjust imprisonment and escape. It’s an archetypal story, really, one which must always end in true justice being served, like in The Walls Around Us. Again and again I keep trying to think of ways for the story to play out just inside the tower. It’s nagging at me! Shouldn’t escape be the end of the story? Shouldn’t the people locked in the tower only be able to escape by overcoming whatever internal obstacles are embodied by their external obstacles?
What is the connection between the gothic novel’s scary houses and these stories of imprisonment and escape? I will have to explore this much more in my essay semester. I wrote my dissertation on the stories written as inspiration for medieval anchoresses who walled themselves into tiny cells, come to think of it. As a committed claustrophobe who can get a panic attack from a sports bra, I might be opening a disturbing can of worms here. Is there any other kind, though? Who puts worms in cans? Speaking of claustrophobic situations.
Ultimately, Book of a Thousand Days is about transformation through sympathy and empathy with another. Dashti can’t escape her own caste upbringing without learning to see the gentry as real people, not the exalted magical beings she imagines them to be at the beginning. Saren can’t escape her own learned helplessness until she sees the work of regular people as something that anyone can do, instead of something that is part of the workers’ nature. Both girls have to come to grips with Lord Khasar’s actual animal nature, as well as Khan Tegus’s real responsibilities to the laws of the land. In the end it’s Dashti who saves them physically, but it’s Saren who figures out a loophole in the laws and customs that allows Dashti to escape execution for presumption of rank.
I find this an incredibly satisfying novel, but it’s not really about the two girls being locked into a tower. It’s about two girls who are locked into their strict social roles and have to free themselves from those.