I enjoyed 'Twelve Kings in Sharakhai' (click here for review)so much that I rolled straight into Bradley Beaulieu's next book. However, I should add that this is not the second book in the 'Song of the Shattered Sands', rather a much shorter interlude that brands itself 'a Shattered Sands novel'. I presume that it's officially a novella, as it's notably smaller in all dimensions, including the number of words on a page and the number of total pages. I'd call it a triptych of short stories that tell a larger one and it wouldn't surprise me a whit to discover that they were originally 'four years ago' chapters in 'Twelve Kings of Sharakhai' but were shorn because they grew into something more than that.
If that's the case, then the shearing was a good idea. Once again, our heroine is Çeda, who's fifteen here. She's already fought in Osman's pits for a year and established her reputation there, as recounted in 'Twelve Kings of Sharakhai', but she's still four years away from the main thrust of that book. This story is a good one but a self-contained one, with a very clear beginning, middle and end. While I enjoyed it thoroughly (arguably more than the larger book, simply because it is self-contained), it really wouldn't have added anything to that work. It would more likely have got in the way of what that book did and lost some of its power in the process for being inevitably split up into different background chapters.
If you haven't read 'Twelve Kings of Sharakhai', that's fine; this book will work perfectly well as a standalone. At the most, it'll explain a few terms that you might not immediately grasp here, like 'shader'. While Çeda gets most of her income from fighting in the pits, she also moonlights as a shader, which is a sort of middle-eastern fantasy version of the Transporter: she picks up packages here and she takes them there, in full knowledge that they're not likely to be legal. This story sparks from one such run, as the recipient reports that it, whatever it is, was poisoned. While he doesn't believe she did the deed, Osman sends Çeda to be interrogated. That places her into contact with Rümayesh, whom we discover soon enough is an immortal ehrekh, and we're off and running.
Rümayesh runs a peculiar business, that of acquiring people to sell their memories on to others as experiences. Çeda, who had started her pit fighting career by defeating (and killing) a much larger male opponent, is clearly a perfect target and Rümayesh acquires her. However, a pair of twin godlings, Hidi and Makuo, promptly steal away Rümayesh, freeing Çeda in the process. You might think that our story's done but it's only just beginning. Rümayesh now has a tie to Çeda and she screams to her within her dreams, asking for help. As this diminishes Çeda physically, she realises that she has to do so and that is where our story lies, our young heroine forced to help her enemy in order to help herself, while trying to figure out a way to defeat her in turn.
As you can imagine, there are layers here, which neatly elevate this tale of sword and sorcery. In fact, I could easily argue that Beaulieu sells his setting better here than he does in 'Twelve Kings of Sharakhai', because in this story, everything is fleeting, including the sides. Alliances come and go, as do enmities. You do what you must and you deal with whom you must and you get on with your life as best you can. That's really the heart of this book and I appreciated that.
Beaulieu is a little less patient here than in 'Twelve Kings of Sharakhai', but he doesn't rush things; he lets the story unfold and the characters, creatures and situations with it. He is patient enough, at least, to set up some effective setpieces. The initial sharing of Çeda's memories is a great scene, the petrified forest is a very worthy location and the final showdown is well-handled indeed. My favourite poetry arrived in the form of the irindai though. They're butterflies, but with both meaning and use. I particularly liked how they could be treated both as good luck (when called 'cressetwings') and a sign of imminent death (when described as 'gallows moths'). I felt that they were a good representation in miniature of the entire book.
'The Song of Shattered Sands' is clearly a sword-and-sorcery series, as patient as it is and as long as it will end up being. I'm certainly used to sword and sorcery in shorter form, from the stories of Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore onwards, and this felt much more akin to their work, partly because of the shorter length and partly because it gets down to the crux of the matter far quicker. Perhaps because so many sword-and-sorcery works feature barbarians with short tempers, any messing around with politics gets quickly nipped in the bud, either with a bloody great sword or a wizard's wand. This doesn't reach those levels of action but it comes far closer than 'Twelve Kings of Sharakhai' with all its character building and slow growth of an entire mythology.
It's always good to see modern sword-and-sorcery. I often tout Marsheila Rockwell's collection, 'Tales of Sand and Sorcery', as the very best book I've read by a contemporary Arizona author, and this novel is happy to play in the same, dare I say it, sandbox, with its own female lead. Fans of either should seek out the other.~~ Hal C F Astell