Disney Hyperion Press
September 1, 2015
Note: This review contains light spoilers for the novel A Whole New World and bigger ones for the film Aladdin. A free copy of A Whole New World was provided by Netgalley and Disney Hyperion for a fair and honest review.
You know the scene.
The Cave of Wonders has imploded, and Aladdin is hanging from a rock ledge, waiting for the old man to pull him up after Aladdin has given him the lamp. The old man (who we know to be Jafar) grabs him, aiming to give Aladdin his (clears throat, prepares) “Eternal Reward!” Just as Jafar is preparing to bring down the knife and kill Aladdin, little Abu bites him and he drops them both into the cave. They land on the Magic Carpet and avoid being boiled alive in lava and Aladdin laments: the old man, or maybe not so old, had tried to kill him, and now he has the lamp. After countless hours (days?) of digging, Aladdin, Abu and the Carpet make it into the desert and back to Agrabah—
Wait, that’s not how the story goes?
Disney Hyperion Press is introducing A Whole New World: A Twisted Tale as the first of what will hopefully be a very successful series of familiar stories turned on their heads. In this one, Jafar has successfully used the Diamond in the Rough to acquire the Genie’s magic lamp, and he’s ready to rule Agrabah with an iron thumb. And maybe some ghouls.
This version of Disney’s Aladdin skips the singing peddler and goes straight to the Quarter of the Street Rats, where a young boy lives with his mother. As young as he is, he has learned to steal to feed himself and his mother while the pair live in hope that his father will return from places unknown. Fast-forward, and Aladdin is now alone in the world. On a regular trip to the market, he runs across a woman—a beautiful woman—who apparently has no clue how to exist and is about to get into a spot of trouble. He drops in to save her and discovers she’s smart, too—she follows along with the plan to escape, before a little fumble gives them away.
They make googly eyes, they get caught, he goes to jail, she thinks he’s dead, all familiar stuff.
But everything you thought you knew? It all goes wrong from there. Jafar might have had some fun for the fifteen minutes he was sultan in the movie, but here’s where he can cause some serious damage. I’d tell you more, but that would just be worthlessly spoiling it.
Liz Braswell’s Agrabah is one that we children of the Nineties will hardly recognize. The (questionably named) Quarter of the Street Rats, where Aladdin and and his fellow thieving waifs hole up both above and underground, is a dark, falling-down corner of the world. But the Call to Prayer, mention of food and drink by name, and relatively extensive discussion of history, scholarship, and tradition, makes Agrabah something more of what the artists in 1992 only superficially touched upon: Middle Eastern. Or rather, Middle Eastern Light. Since, let’s face it, the book is still Disney, the vernacular and activities are far more modern than historical–though not as outrageous as some might claim the final outcome to be, even in a heavily patriarchal environment. But I won’t discuss that too much. Spoilers and all.
This leads us to another thing A Whole New World gives us that the film didn’t even bother to try: women. There are women in this story and they have real roles to play! Jasmine is great, and she more than kicks ass in this novel. But she was the only woman who spoke in the movie besides the whores (yes, there were whores in Aladdin…or maybe we’ll just call them “harem girls” because that’s…so much better?). Whether it’s Aladdin’s mother being incredibly proud in the face of potential charity or the leader of an enterprising ring of thieves in the underbelly of the city, these women are no wilting flowers, and the ones who interact with Jasmine help her own ingenuity to come forth when it is needed.
This is not to say, of course, that A Whole New World is the perfect book. The pacing is incredibly quick, some of the language choices are beyond the juvenile level of the book itself, and the development of the “romance” is almost more unbelievable than it is in the film. The first time Aladdin decides that he loves Jasmine, I was confused. This is supposed to happen, of course, but when did they have the chance to fall in love? On that same rooftop before he was taken? While they’ve been plotting the rebellion? Maybe a second reading will make that clearer.
But a Jasmine determined to be a good Sultana for her people, with a good prince at her side? That I’ll take.
Overall, A Whole New World is an excellent start to a series that will hopefully continue to become more and more twisted as readership picks up steam.
Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here watching this: