Blood Upon the Sand: Bradley Beaulieu

★★★½

The Song of the Shattered Sands: Book II

With barely a pause for breath, I headed on to the next book in Bradley Beaulieu’s towering desert fantasy. Like its predecessor, it’s packed with adventure as our protagonist Çeda works her way deeper into the community of Blade Maidens on the royal mount of Tauriyat, while her childhood friend Emre knits himself closer to the rebel army of the Moonless Host. I don’t know how many books Beaulieu intends to write in this series, but this volume has the feel of a typical ‘middle’ book: threads are taken up from the first book, the scope widens, and an increasingly complex weave of intrigue and skulduggery leaves us with several unanswered questions at the end. Yet it remains compellingly rich and detailed: the wealth of Beaulieu’s imagination is never in doubt.

We rejoin Çeda where we left her, as she shrugs off her past among the fighting pits of Sharakhai and settles into her bewildering new existence. As one of the Kings’ elite company of Blade Maidens, she now has unprecedented access to the royal palaces, but her role also introduces new tensions into her life. Her actions are under greater scrutiny and her secrets could be uncovered at any time: by the Jackal King Mesut; by Zeheb, King of Whispers, or by Yusam, whose enchanted mere offers him glimpses of the future. She also risks being unmasked by her fierce bond with the asirim, the unfortunate creatures of the Kings, whose inner fury threatens to overwhelm Çeda’s own caution. Yet these are all risks she’s willing to take, for her place on Tauriyat gives her valuable knowledge: there seem to be fatal rifts and factions even among the Kings themselves. She will find new allies in these dangerous times, but also new enemies, most notably the Maiden Yndris, daughter of the Confessor King Cahil, who will stop at nothing to undermine Çeda.

While Çeda finds her way within the House of Maidens, Emre throws in his lot with the Moonless Host, led by the charismatic Macide. Determined to avenge the wrongs of Beht Ihman, this popular movement moves like smoke through the tangled streets of Sharakhai, spawning violence and dissent in its wake. And they have just acquired a formidable new weapon in their fight against the Kings, in the person of the blood-mage Hamzakiir, who promises to give the cause greater strength than ever before. But how reliable is Hamzakiir? How far, truly, can the Host trust him and to what length do their and his ambitions truly dovetail? This question is also on the mind of the Qaimiri ambassador Ramahd Amansir, whose royal sister-in-law Meryam – a powerful blood-mage in her own right – believes Hamkaziir can be contained and used as a tool. It is a mistake that will cost Qaimir dearly and which will draw Ramahd and Meryam ever deeper into the power struggles between the Kings and their most obdurate enemies.

This is not a simple book. There are wheels within wheels and so much plotting that you can barely chew your way through it. No two characters have exactly the same aims and alliances shift, change and fade as events develop, which adds to the feeling that you’re reading a novel woven as intricately and densely as a tapestry. I’ll admit that there were times I lost track of exactly who was now fighting who, and occasionally I felt that I should begin to draw diagrams. Yet the action remains pacy, with plenty of fights, espionage and weighted conversations. As you might imagine in a novel where blood-mages are so important, magic (of a faintly alchemical type) does play a central role here, stronger than in the first novel. I think it would be a shame if this came to overpower the characters’ own martial abilities – for me, a battle with steel and spear is so much more exhilarating than mages hurling fireballs and monsters at one another – but so far the balance remains right. And, with every page, you find yourself learning more about the history and customs of Sharakhai and its neighbours: Beaulieu is an extremely talented world-builder.

Knotty and violent, this remains a captivating series, like a sand-dusted Game of Thrones where ancient powers and blood-soaked vengeance struggle for supremacy among the dunes. I already know that I’m going to have to read these first two books again, because there’s simply so much detail that I couldn’t take it all in on a single read. Again, it comes recommended for those who like political, pugnacious fantasy. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see how Çeda’s story, and the Kings’ fates, play out from here on.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Last in this series – Twelve Kings in Sharakhai

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