The Goddess of Dance by Anna Kashina
The Goddess of Dance by Anna Kashina (Dragonwell Publishing, 2012), Book II The Spirits of the Ancient Lands, follows on from The Princess of Dhagabad which was first published in 2000 but is now republished by Dragonwell. As is the way of the world, there will be a third, perhaps without the twelve year gap. So where to start?
Anna Kashina is one of these brave people who not only moves to a new country, but also moves to a country with a different language. When you start off with Russian as your mother tongue, you’re switching from Slavic syntactical systems to a Germanic language, and from the Cyrillic script to our alphabet, both of which slow down the assimilation of the new language. As a result, the English in which this book is written is less naturally idiomatic and slightly more generic. There are also moments when I suspect a thought was first captured in Russian and then translated a little too literally. In a book which is a modern take on the Arabian Nights, this actually works well most of the time. In that context, you expect a more unworldly form of writing with the occasional exotic interlude. For example, “He must be captured back.” is rather more evocative and imperative than a mere, “He must be recaptured.” Except, every now and again, we get a ghastly Americanism. Yes, I know this is a book now published by an American company and intended for sale to local readers. But there should be enough sensitivity in the editors to blue pencil usages like “gotten” or the not infrequent use of “I guess” from an otherwise language neutral text. As it is, there are jarring moments when our Princess and her romantic interest suddenly lapse from an intense exchange into incongruous slanginess. And while we’re on the more technical aspects, I make allowances for only having an ARC to read but this has been typeset by an amateur. Hopefully, the text was reset for sale to the public.
Which brings us to the story itself. Structurally, this is quite an elegant updating of the style and conventions of One Thousand and One Nights which, you will recall, was a frame with multiple embedded short stories. The Goddess of Dance is predominantly a linear story describing a Scheherazade who grows in power as time passes. The mechanism of this empowerment is that she experiences the embedded history of another woman as a dream. As the dream develops, our heroine is fascinated by the dance this role model is learning (rather like the exercise routines you see on YouTube) and begins to get fit in body and mind by practising the moves herself.
For these purposes, let’s speculate that the original Arabian Nights frame is an early feminist tract. The Princess is able to survive and eventually win a reprieve from the paranoid and homicidal King. At the time the stories were being collected and published, most women were treated as chattels and of little intrinsic value. That the King felt able to kill each new wife on the morning after marrying them speaks loudly of his view of women as irredeemably disloyal and the ultimately disposable sex toys. So readers watching a woman talk her way out of a death sentence would see a relatively modern view of women as able to take a mentally ill man in hand and, through the judicious use of talk therapy, restore him to sanity and a more balanced view of the role of women in society. In this story, the amor vincit omnia moment came at the end of the first novel, freed the djinn and restored his human status. We’re now into dealing with the aftermath of having a superpowered magician wandering around without anyone telling him what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. Well, of course, that wasn’t so much a problem when the Princess was telling him what to do, but there are plenty of really bad people in this world and if they should happen to lay hands on a djinn, they could inflict a lot of damage. So it’s a good job this ex-djinn is basically a nice guy who, despite several thousand years of experience, can still fall in love with the first pretty young thing to flutter her eyelashes at him. The only man we meet with a djinn is a bit dim and easily manipulated by his djinn which is fortunate because, if she was not a brake on him, he would do terrible things (yet more evidence of a woman’s power of persuasion saving the world).
And this is the major problem for me with this book. For the most part, it reads like a YA novel with very simplistic characterisations and a sweet young girl going through trials to toughen her up, and then we have this romantic fiction element with some chaste love, followed by a delicately described orgy, followed by love-at-first-sight (or perhaps it’s a spell) and a one-shot pregnancy deal, followed by more chaste love which finally gets to real sex in the Mills and Boon style of metaphorical writing. Personally, I prefer my fantasies to be more gritty rather than this float-away-on-a-pink-cloud approach to Arabian Nights stories. The Goddess of Dance has all the elements that could have made for a tense and exciting drama but, at every point where Anna Kashina could have introduced a real sense of danger to life and limb, we get the old, “I will struggle while even a single breath is left in my body.” approach to problem solving. While this may go down well in the market for teen female readers who want their spunky, can-do heroine to come through the fire with flags flying and a hose pipe to put out the flames, this jaded old man wants something altogether more edgy and potentially frightening.
From all this, you will understand that you will love this book if you are seventeen, have overdosed on Stephenie Meyer type fiction, and want to see what life is like for Princesses in the Arabian Nights scenario. Everyone else will shake their heads in disbelief that an author could assemble the elements for a potentially great story and then waste every opportunity to write one.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.