The Arabian Nights – most of us know the stories of Ali Baba and Aladdin, but the much longer original collection of tales were lush cautionary tales from cultures all over the world. In this beautifully rendered series retelling the One Thousand and One Nights, we revisit familiar stories and are entranced with less well-known visions. The frame of the original is the same: the mad, betrayed sultan Shahryar, beheading a bride a night, and clever Scheherazade spinning out stories to delay the morning and save her life. However in this Korean manhwa the players are recast and given a more complex back story.
This time around, the Scheherazade part is taken by Sehara, a young man beautiful and desperate enough to take his sister’s place when the murderous Shahryar summons his sister to be his nightly companion. Shahryar is not long fooled by the disguise, but he’s intrigued enough by the boy’s ploy not to have him immediately executed. And so the familiar game starts: Sehara distracts the king from his vengeful need to murder all wives by telling him stories both exotic and pointed, slowly forcing Shahryar to see his vicious cruelty for what it is.
Both writer and artist take full advantage of the cultural change each tale brings, creating gorgeous costumes and scenery. The art is not just surface, though – the emotional resonance is just as beautifully rendered, as when Shahryar realizes his wife’s betrayal and the very lines of his image splinter and vibrate with his outraged scream. It’s also evident that the creators did their homework, representing each culture with historical details and an eye toward not only how best to tell each story but also how to make it read anew. In the author and artist notes, each weighs in on why the stories resonated for them and what they chose to emphasize within each. The creators balance out the loss of Scheherazade as a strong heroine by using the stories to comment on gender roles and the place of women, especially in their retelling of Cleopatra’s tale. They also impart tidbits they learned while researching, including the fact that while Aladdin and Ali Baba are the best known heroes, their tales were not originally part of the One Thousand and One Nights but were added later by a European author.
The first three volumes cover some familiar stories: Turandot, best known as an opera, and the legendary Cleopatra. Threaded through the plot of Shahryar and his court are also more obscure stories, such as a sea god bridegroom who’s strength and tragedy is found in a selfless love. Each story is vivid in its own right, and the creators weave together the multiple stories with skill. The stories within the story take up much of each volume while the tale of Shahryar’s crumbling power and rage knits all of the separate installments together. Once a strong and fair ruler, those last few loyal at court try to restore their once beloved king, reminding him of the justice and joy he once embraced. At the same time, Sehara’s own sister becomes involved with rebels determined to overthrow their vicious tyrant. Given how well the series has started, the anticipated clash of the two sides will be worth the wait.
This series does not shy away from the fact that these stories were never intended for children – the sensual content and bouts of violence are not edited and keeps the series for older teens. These are not the versions read to children. Nonetheless, the powerful mix of story and emotion make this a great way to introduce new readers to the One Thousand and One Nights.