One Thousand and One Nights, Vol. 1-9
written by JinSeok Jeon
illustrated by SeungHee Han
The Sultan Shahryar has gone mad. Betrayed by his bride, he takes a girl from the harem into his bed each night and the next morning she is beheaded. When his beloved half-sister Dunyazade is slated to be taken to the Sultan, the femininely beautiful Sehara disguises himself as a girl and takes her place. Once in the Sultan’s bedchamber, however, Sehara must buy his life by the tales he tells the Sultan. As Sehara’s life becomes entwined with Shahryar’s, though, the two men begin to see that there are deeper issues at work in the relationships around them and Sehara’s tales become a way of healing the wounds of Shahryar, of the people of Baghdad, and of those who rally both for and against the Islamic realm.
Jeon and Han, paired up by their magazine publisher to craft a new version of the Shahrazad folktale, start out with a boys’ love version of the tale, but soon move into something deeper and more subtle that examines the role of stories in explaining human relationships. Along the way, they also look at how our interactions with others shape us for good or ill and how strong emotions such as love or hate can tear a person up from the inside, leaving them unable to function in the world around them. Sehara’s stories are drawn from all over the world and from multiple time periods. Jeon picks and chooses which tales will best illustrate the point he is trying to make, sometimes using a complete folktale or story and occasionally making up his own. His source material includes opera—Turandot, by Puccini and inspired by one of the tales in 1,001 Arabian Nights; historical figures—such as Cleopatra and Socrates; fairytales—“The Angel and the Woodsman,” a Korean tale similar to the European fairy tale about a swan maiden or the Irish folktales about selkie; and ancient fiction—the Chinese story The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He ends each volume with a special commentary where he discusses the history of some of his source material and also chats about his thoughts on political topics. For a story in which a female lead has been replaced by a man and where one of the evil characters is a cheating wife, Jeon’s views are very feminist. He believes in strong women and many of his stories reflect that. He also allows his personal views on war to color some tales. In one story arc, Sehara tells crusaders from England the story of an American soldier fighting in the current Iraq war. It is a testament to the strength of Jeon’s storytelling that this type of anachronism works so well.
Han’s job is to illustrate Jeon’s flights of fancy, and she does a beautiful job. Because this series is fairly clearly aimed at readers of boys’ love, she makes sure that all of her men are beautiful in one way or another. Some, such as Sehara or Socrates’ lover Alcibiades, are more feminine in appearance, while others, especially the Crusader King MacLeod, have a rougher look, but all are guaranteed to be easy on the eyes. But none of the boys’ love elements are shoved into readers’ faces, making this also a good choice for readers who want the dramatic storyline and aren’t bothered by romances between men.
The settings are another challenge she faces. With both the main story and Sehara’s stories to illustrate, Han’s work must describe many times and locales, but she succeeds admirably. Even in stories that can be confusing to audiences unfamiliar with the source material—such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms—the characters are distinct and clearly different from one another.
One Thousand and One Nights is full of situations that make it more appropriate for an older teen and adult audience. There are sexual scenes that are not graphic but that clearly show what is happening. There is also a good amount of violence and at least one rape. The challenge Jeon and Han face as this story winds down—two more volumes are still to be released in the United States—is crafting an ending that will stay true to the tone of Sehara and Shahryar’s story while also satisfying readers. With a series of melancholy stories having already been told and with Shahryar’s history as a murderer, a happy ending is not guaranteed. But Jeon is a strong enough writer to wrap his tale up in the way that is most fitting and Han will ensure that the illustrations are beautiful. Mature readers who haven’t already picked this series up will want to look for it now, especially if they are fans of folklore.