This was lovely and unexpected.
Set in a sort of alternate medieval fantasy!Mongolia, it brings to mind classic fairytales with a princess locked in a tower for defying her father's mandate to marry the evil lord of a neighbouring land. Except the hero of the story is neither the resistant princess nor her dashing princely love, but the unsuspecting, dutiful servant girl who accompanies her into exile.
Dashti is a mucker, a sort of herding, yurt-living nomad, who heads to the city for a job after her mother and last remaining family member dies. She's trained as a lady's maid because she knows the healing songs of her people. Her first assignment is to the daughter of the khan, but when she shows up for work, her new employer has been deserted by the rest of her staff and is about to be locked up for seven years for refusing a marriage.
There's much to love about this book - apparently a 10-year anniversary re-release. Dashti has the kind of slow but significant character arc that is extremely hard to pull off, but entirely convincing and satisfying. She's determined, responsible, and hard-working, and very aware of her low-class status. Her transition from being happy just to be fed and housed to falling in love and learning to want, pursue, and fight for more than she ever thought she deserved is inspiring and natural-seeming.
The story is entirely told through Dashti's writing-practice journal entries, a unique perspective that creates an almost delicate-seeming storytelling style. The character experiences are mostly conveyed from the outside, from observations and actions, which can pack more of a punch than a close voice and strong interiority.
A poverty-stricken, bottom-of-society, functionally powerless girl saves everyone from her nearest relationships to the country. But don't read it for that. Read it for the amazing healing power of cats, and the story of one girl who's totally, utterly and completely in love with her cat.
Lovely read. I'm grabbing everything written by this author to marathon through right now.