This one's sat on my shelf waiting to be read for a while, but it's a huge hardback and I had too many other smaller priorities. However, I really needed to bite the bullet because I now have its equally bulky sequel and a smaller volume, not part of 'The Song of the Shattered Sands' series but set in its world and following its lead character, taking up space on the same shelf. And, of course, I regretted the delay as soon as I started reading!
This is a fantasy series, to number at least three books but presumably more, given that the word 'trilogy' never comes up. It's set in a fictional world with obvious influence from our own Africa and Arabia, both in language and culture. People wear thawbs, khalats or jalabiyas, each of which is a real item of clothing, even if we have to look them up to see what they are.
Within fantasy, it should be described as sword and sorcery, not because there are any muscled barbarians, giant snakes or corrupt wizards but because swords and sorcery are the ways that things generally get done around the great desert of Shangazi. Everyday life in Sharakhai, the Amber City, doesn't tend to feature anything too wild and unusual for a mediaeval middle-eastern desert city, except on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir when the twin moons are full and the asirim enter the city to hunt for souls.
No, the people don't fight them, they hide in their houses and wait for the Reaping King to mark the doors of those to be taken. It's an honour, because the kings have ruled long enough in Sharakhai for their ways to have become tradition. Here's where a sense of the sorcerous comes in. These kings are hundreds of years old. They rule because the gods willed it on a famous night after a famous battle that has fallen into mythology. There are gods here and monsters too. What magic there is, is high and sorcerous. Nobody wrinkles their nose and nobody waves their wand, but weird rites can summon weird creatures and objects like jewels and trees can convey special powers.
'Twelve Kings in Sharakhai' is really two books, roughly three hundred pages each, that could easily have been separated out into two more handily sized volumes. Both follow a well-drawn leading lady, Çeda by name, who starts the book as a talented nineteen-year-old pit fighter known as the White Wolf. However, they take place at opposite sides of a crucial turning point in her life and one is very much a sequel to the other, even if there's an abundance of back story interspersed within chapters of each. The twelve kings of Sharakhai, important enough to be the title of this book, and the Blade Maidens, their firstborn daughters by many different women, who serve as their bodyguards, only make fleeting appearances in the first half but become a key focus of the second.
Because of this, I really can't talk about most of it, but I can say that Çeda is a young lady driven by vengeance. Her mother, Ahya, was killed when Çeda was ten, executed by the kings for reasons unknown but clearly tied to some sort of attempt on their lives. Ahya was driven by vengeance too and her crusade has passed down to young Çeda, even if she doesn't yet know why. Certainly the kings don't help their case. Any sort of attempt at sabotage or assassination by the Moonless Host, Al'afwa Khadar, who are either terrorists or freedom fighters depending on which side you're on, is received and returned in blood. Early on, they attempt and fail to capture a king in the city; the response is twenty-four regular citizens hanged from the battlements with their throats cut.
When not fighting in the pits, Çeda works in the 'shading' business, which means that she's a sort of mediaeval transporter, picking things up here and dropping them off there, without ever knowing what those packages are but assuming that they're not on the up and up. Hey, it pays the bills. In her spare time, through a family friend at the Collegia, she researches everything she can to try to explain the book that her mother left her and the odd visions she had when Ahya took her to visit a desert witch called Saliah.
And, of course, we learn alongside her, which is a neat way for Bradley Beaulieu to flesh out his world and his lead character all at the same time. This is a neat mix of mythology and history, all imagined for this world, in a narrative framework that has all the requisite pulp elements: sex, violence and the supernatural, albeit not in the sheer quantities you might expect if you've watched 'Game of Thrones'; I think we get two sex scenes in almost six hundred pages and they're hardly gratuitous. We do learn a great deal as those pages unfold, without ever getting bogged down in the sort of insane detail that Tolkien scholars adore.
There's much more to come, too; because, even at that sort of length, there's much that's still only hinted at. For instance, if the first half of this book is Çeda wanting to enact vengeance for her mother, the second half is her figuring out how to do so and book two will start with that vengeance finally begun. For someone who has a shader's understanding of the details of the city, there are surprisingly few important people in Çeda's life, so we see their growth in magnificent depth. Her best friend, Emre, has his own story arc that runs alongside hers, although she's always the lead and he's always in support. Osman, her employer at the pits and as a shader, has importance too. Even Dardzada, the apothecary who brought her up after her mother's death, clearly has more story to tell.
There are other little details that stood out for me, but I have to be careful about mentioning them in case they're not quite that obvious. For instance, while Beaulieu tends to refer to his characters by nickname, like Çeda, he occasionally hauls out their full names for effect, like Çedaminh Ishaq'ava. That surname shows up again on an apparently unrelated character who surely isn't going to remain unrelated for long, but that story doesn't unfold here. Another character shows up 159 pages in and promptly vanishes again for a while, but is surely going to be an important player as the wider story continues to expand.
Boiled down to the Cliff's Notes, there's a lot here but there's a heck of a lot more to come and, as Ramahd tells Meryam, patience is a luxury not always afforded by the gods, so we should savour and value it. ~~ Hal C F Astell