Book Review: The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg (2016)

January 20th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Quite possibly the most beautiful graphic novel I’ve ever read. ALL THE STARS AND MOONS.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for threats of rape.)

They luxuriated sinfully in that most beautiful of all things: The written word.

All those stories you have told, all those wonderful stories…
They are nothing to OUR STORY. People will tell it in years to come…
And they will say, that was a story about Love.
And about two brave girls who wouldn’t take shit from anyone.

Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it.
Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, in a land called Early Earth, there lived two star-crossed lovers: Cherry, a fair and lovely young woman from the Empire of Migdal Bavel, and her maid, Hero.

Despite her vaguely masculine name, Hero was a young woman as well – and a servant and runaway, at that – both conditions which conspired against their love. Cherry’s father insisted she marry a man who could provide for her; and so, after dodging his demands for one blissful summer (spent in the arms of Hero, of course), Cherry finally acquiesced. Luckily, Hero was able to accompany Cherry to the castle of her new husband, Jerome, where she stayed on as Cherry’s maid – and her secret lover. Like many of the men in Migdal Bavel, Jerome was a rather dim-witted and arrogant misogynist, you see, so Hero and Cherry were able to outwit him with minimal effort.

And then one day Jerome made a foolish bet with his friend Manfred, a man a little less stupid but a whole lot crueler than himself.

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If Manfred could seduce his ‘obedient and faithful’ (*snort!*) wife Cherry, then Manfred would win Jerome’s castle. If not, Manfred’s castle would become Jerome’s. Jerome would feign a business trip, giving Manfred a full one hundred days to execute his fiendish plot.

Being an amateur eavesdropper, Hero overheard the men’s conversation and tipped her lover off. Knowing that Manfred would take Cherry’s maidenhood by force if necessary (read: rape), the women hatched their own plan to keep Manfred at bay: with stories. For Hero is a gifted and cunning storyteller who hails from a long line of gifted and cunning female storytellers.

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So for one hundred nights, Hero enthralls Manfred – and their guards, and indeed all of Migdal Bavel – with tales of madness, lust, deception, bravery, fealty, and ingenuity. Stories about sisters, fathers and daughters, kings and their subjects, men and women and moons and lovers. Stories of how the world came to be, and how it was corrupted: by a daughter named Kiddo and her father, the god Bird Man. But little does Hero know that her and Cherry’s story will prove the most epic and revolutionary of them all.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is simply breathtaking. Honestly, it just might be the most beautiful and moving graphic novel I’ve ever read. I love fairy tell retellings, and we’re treated to several rather lovely ones, thanks to Hero. But The One Hundred Nights of Hero is so much more than this: there are stories within stories within stories, and by the book’s end, they all converge in a way that feels both masterful and magical. Much like Hero, Isabel Greenberg has the gift of gab, as Manfred would say. She also has a sly and sometimes dark sense of humor, which adds a little feminist levity to a story that can be grim and depressing at times.

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The artwork is lovely, with bold graphics (that kind of brought to mind Kill Bill, if I’m being honest) and punches of color to emphasize a point.

It feels almost primitive, like the artwork of early h. sapiens – a few steps up from cave art, maybe. Rough and angular but also beautiful, in its own way. It fits well with the “Early Earth” setting.

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Hero and Cherry’s love forms the heart of the story. In a society that’s deeply homophobic and rooted in misogyny (some of the funniest/saddest moments involve women being persecuted and ultimately executed for reading, writing, witchcraft, and general “sassiness”), there’s nothing worse than a smart and opinionated woman – except two smart and opinionated women who love each other, and have no need of men.

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Hero and Cherry’s fate was sealed from the start; in a world where women just can’t win, Jerome and Manfred’s wager was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t Catch-22 situation. (Think about ye ole swimming test for witches. Strip and bind a woman and toss her in the water. If she floats, she’s a witch and must be executed. If she drowns, she’s declared innocent. Um, thanks?)

Yet their love – and the great love of The Sisterhood of Secret Storytellers, or The Sisterhood of Women Who Won’t Take Shit from Anyone, or whatever you want to call it – endures. No, it does more than that: it transcends. It shines immortal, just like the three moons and the five dancing stones of Hero’s fairy tales.

But the story’s fist – the one that ultimately smashes the patriarchy of Migdal Bavel – lies in the power of storytelling. The One Hundred Nights of Hero is nothing if not a love letter: to the tellers of stories, no matter what form they take (authors, poets, songwriters, painters, playwrights, sculptors, you name it!), and the adoring audiences who carry their tales with them, wherever they go, thus becoming storytellers in their own right. A well-crafted story has the power to inspire compassion and empathy; to topple the existing social order, challenge the victor’s version of history, and make the world a better place. Seeing yourself in a story is to see yourself, your very existence, validated; to see a different way of walking around in the world. The girls and women of Migdal Bavel? Of Little Rock, Arkansas and Chingola, Zambia and Jēkabpils, Latvia? They need that. We all do.

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Some of my most cherished stories remind me of the one line in the one story I cherish above all others: the ghost’s entreaty to Mary, upon her escape from the world of the dead, to “Tell them stories.” Storytelling is a nothing short of a superpower – and it’s one that Hero wields with grace and skill.

Ditto: Isabel Greenberg. The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a story that we need now more than ever; a story that I’ll return to time and again in the next few years, and probably beyond. A story for the ages, as they say.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Cherry and her maid Hero are lovers; lovers kept apart in the society that’s deeply homophobic and rooted in misogyny. Additionally, the characters in Hero’s stories – and The One Hundred Nights of Hero – belong to many races and ethnicities, and evidenced by their various skin tones, which range from paper-white to a dark grey (the human characters are typically rendered in black and white). For example, in the retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” the King adopted his daughters from each of the twelve continents of Early Earth; only four of the girls are white. The King himself has medium-dark skin. Likewise, the Farm Boy who solves the mystery of their worn-out shoes is nonwhite. This is a wonderfully queer, racially diverse, and fiercely feminist book.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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