If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Bradley P. Beaulieu. So when he asked me if I would be interested in an advance ebook for review purposes, there was only one answer. (Many thanks, sir.)
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is the first volume in The Song of Shattered Sands. It’s an ambitious book, and it’s clear that the series is going to be ambitious.
Now, I’ve long said that writers, in an ideal world at least, should continue to improve and get better as time goes on. If the quality of the first book is any indication, this is going to be a major series. I loved The Lays of Anaskaya, but The Song of Shattered Sands looks to be even better.
I’ll explain why after I give you a brief description of the setup.
The city of Sharakhai grew up out of the desert around a natural oasis. The tribes of this region were all nomadic, but over time some of the people decided to stay at the oasis. At first they stayed in ones and twos, usually those who were ill or injured. More and more people from the various tribes decided to stay, leaving the nomadic lifestyle to become a settled people. Thus was the city of Sharakhai born.
About 400 years ago, the tribes united to destroy the city. To stay and become settled was a great offense to the belief systems of the tribes. In order to survive the attacks, twelve kings made a dark bargain with the gods. Part of the bargain involved blood sacrifice. The kings were given specific traits, and these same kings have ruled the city ever since. The night this pact was made has come to be known as Beht Ihman.
Four hundred years is a long time, and of course there has been rebellion. It’s always put down and put down violently, often on a ratio of 12 to 1. In other words harm one of the Kings or their guardians the Blade Maidens, and 12 people will be killed in response.
The central viewpoint character is a young woman of about 19 named Ceda. (There’s a squiggly thing on the bottom of the “C” that my computer can’t reproduce. Her name is pronounced Chee-da, or something close to it.) When the book opens, she’s a gladiator. She’s one of the best and most popular, but her identity is a secret.
She’s also an orphan who spent much of her adolescence on the street. Her mother was killed when she was 11, for trying to assassinate one of the Kings. Ceda has sworn she will kill them all in revenge.
Every six weeks one of the kings leads a group of monsters through the city at night and captures people. Called Beht Zha’ir, this happens when both moons rise at the same time and is considered to be one of the holiest nights in the calendar. It’s a night when sensible people stay indoors. Ceda goes out on Beht Zha’ir regularly to gather petals in the groves of the adichara trees. It’s the only night the trees bloom, and when dried, the petals are powerful drugs.
Ceda and her roommate Emre, a young man with whom she is in love, sometimes run errands for the owner of the gladiatorial arena where she fights. He gives them an assignment as couriers on the upcoming Beht Zhai’ir.
When Emre is attacked and severely injured, Ceda rescues him after delivering her item, but not before following the man she gave it to and see him hand it off to the leader of a terrorist resistance group. After finding and saving Emre, while nearly getting killed herself, she opens Emre’s package. It contains a rare stone that she will soon learn is used to raise the dead.
And that’s when her troubles truly begin.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is a character driven, action oriented fantasy with a heavy influx of mystery and a good dose of political intrigue. Ceda is a wonderfully flawed character, as is Emre. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, and she sometimes has to live with consequences she’d rather not deal with.
Beaulieu begins his tale with Ceda as the only viewpoint character, but once he has established her, he begins to add others such as one of the Kings and a tribal prince. The effect was like a flower opening in slow motion. The scope of the story continued to expand as the reader sees circumstances and relationships from different angles. The use of flashback chapters was well done and tended to flesh out the backstory relevant to the particular action occurring at that point in the story. I especially liked the illustrations heading each chapter. Pay attention to them because they will tell you something about the chapter.
While there is some resolution to the story arc, there are plenty of unanswered questions. Who is Ceda’s father? Who is the Blade Maiden she fights in the desert in the adichara grove? How much has Ceda forgotten about her mother, and how reliable are her memories? Who is the witch her mother visited in the desert? Where are the other poems her mother wrote, each telling how to kill one of the Kings? What really happened on the night of Beht Ihman, and why have the records been altered?
Beaulieu has created a complex world where life is cheap, the stakes are high, and the rewards great. This is fantasy you can sink your teeth into. Beaulieu is clearly at the top of his game. The depth of backstory, the detail, and the development of character are the best he’s written.
I realize that a hardcover will put the book out of reach of some readers until a paperback edition hits shelves. (No, I have no idea when that will be.) As of this writing, you can preorder the book on Amazon for 25% off. Put this one on your radar. I expect The Song of Shattered Sands to be a major series. Beaulieu said in the acknowledgements that he’s sold the first three books. (Yes, I read the acknowledgements.) Does that mean there will be more than three? Well, Ceda has vowed to kill twelve kings, so who knows?
If you want to get a taste of the world of Shattered Sands, Ceda appears in a story in Blackguards.