Twelve Kings in Sharakhai: Bradley Beaulieu

★★★★

The Song of the Shattered Sands: Book I

You hear a lot of fantasy novels being described as ‘epic’, but the opening novel in Bradley Beaulieu’s new series deserves that epithet better than most. It isn’t just huge – 580 pages in the hardback version – but it features a monumental concept, rich with history, legends and backstory, which is all the more memorable for stepping outside the usual traditions of Western European-inspired fantasy. Beaulieu’s Sharakhai is a desert city of mud-brick and stone, a compelling blend of Marrakesh and ancient Baghdad, full of intrigues, secrets and half-truths. For one young woman, seeking vengeance for her mother’s murder, these secrets will offer a road out of the fighting pits, and a future more dazzling and more lethal than anything she could have dreamed.

Çeda has spent her whole life in Sharakhai: her dimly-remembered childhood with her mother; her youth among the souks and the alleyways, with the other gutter wrens; and then, more recently, in the great fighting pits, where she has made a reputation for herself as the White Wolf. Many would be content with such a life, but Çeda seeks more than fame and fortune. She wants to understand why her mother was murdered and strung up, eleven years ago, by order of the ruthless, long-lived Twelve Kings of Sharakhai. What threat did a woman from the city pose to these great rulers in their palaces on the hill of Tauriyat? Why did her mother risk her life to bring back adichara petals from the sacred groves beyond the city walls? And why is Çeda’s patron Osman getting mixed up in the plots of the Moonless Host, who aim to bring down the Kings altogether?

Certainly, Sharakhai is a place of mysteries. But it’s also a place of dangers. Çeda and her friend Emre know only too well that it’s unwise to be out on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. On that night, that the Reaping King comes down from Tauriyat and roams the streets with his pack of asirim, twisted, ancient creatures who were once human, and who now serve as the Kings’ jackals, hunting out their sacrifices. It’s easy to lose one’s life on Beht Zha’ir, and normally Çeda and Emre would stay inside, doing their best, like all their neighbours, to make no sound that could draw the asirim to their door. But, on one such night, they have no choice. When Emre fails to return from a package-run, Çeda goes out into the streets to find him, risking an encounter with the asirim in the hope of saving her friend. But what transpires on that moonlit night only raises more questions, and Çeda begins to wonder whether the truth that she has lived by is actually a truth at all – or perhaps simply a rich fabric of lies and fables, which is slowly beginning to unravel?

There is far too much in this book to even attempt to summarise it here: I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone who likes meaty, complicated novels. We move between three or four different points of view, each clearly distinguished by the art above the chapter headings, and two different time periods, but Beaulieu manages to prevent the story from becoming tangled or confusing. Instead, having these different viewpoints helps us, slowly, to understand what’s happening in the novel and to gradually piece together some of the mysteries that trouble Çeda. I should emphasise another thing, too: this isn’t a novel where everything is laid out neatly. You have to work at it a little, but it’s ambitious and rewarding and leaves you eager to know what happens next.

Çeda, too, is a magnificent protagonist and I thought it rather wonderful to read about a brave, strong, independent and self-directed woman who usually wears a niqab – simply because it’s part of her culture. It’s also refreshing to have a fantasy heroine who isn’t driven in whole or even in part by romantic longings. Çeda has had men, and has a strange kind of relationship with Emre, but her loyalty to him is born from long friendship and trust rather than from a fluttering heart. No: Çeda is driven by memory and vengeance and a desire for knowledge, and her mind is as sharp as her blade. I’m very interested to see how she develops now, and how her palimpsest of a past will hold up in the future.

Full of adventure, mystery and otherworldly eeriness, this really stood out for me among the fantasy novels I’ve been reading in recent months – in the richness of its world-building and the exoticism of its concept, it reminded me of The Grace of KingsI’m lucky enough to have a review copy of the second novel waiting on my Kindle, so I’ll be back very soon to let you know whether the series continues as strongly as it’s begun. But, for now, I leave you with a strong recommendation. If you’re looking for an absorbing new fantasy series to get your teeth into, this is definitely one to consider.

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