I probably won’t give a deep summary of many of the books I review. Ultimately, if you want to know the general concepts, you can read the back of the book at your favorite book-seller, the summary on Goodreads, or the blurb on your favorite book retailer’s website.
I will note here that the book is about a young woman, Çeda, who lives a complex life: orphan, former gutter-wren, apothecary’s assistant, gladiator, cold-blooded killer, lifelong friend, vengeful would-be assassin. She’s a fighter: always was, always will be, never really had a choice, after her mother is murdered and strung up for all to see. Çeda spends about 0% of the book moaning about her difficulties, though, and spends much of the book plotting (and working toward) the murder of the 12 near-immortal, god-blessing-infused Kings of/in Sharakhai.The Kings were directly responsible for her mother’s death, you see.
These Kings each have a different power given to them by a god. But there is also, intended or unintended, a curse attached to each. One King, for example, who can see the future, can only see the other Kings’ futures as a crown that could signify any of the other Kings, and he cannot see his own future at all. He is haunted by this blindspot, and it has caused him terrible grief. The Kings are god-like, cruel, and over 400-years old. Despite this cruelty, we do see their motivations and follow one of these kings via POV.
The book is languid in spilling it’s secrets, told in third-person prose that shifts to several different characters. The sequential flashbacks give us glimpses at how Çeda became the young woman we meet in chapter one, and also gives a more complete understanding of her relationships, like the one with her caretaker and with her best friend..
One aspect that I loved about this book–one of many–is that romantic love is not a plot point here. Love is important, present, celebrated. But this is by no means a romance novel. It is a fantasy novel with realistic, never-forced emotional truths.
This novel fits some common fantasy thematic elements, a few common fantasy tropes, uses some signals that an avid fantasy reader will pick up. Some of the secrets that Çeda unearths are guessed early on, but the book doesn’t rely on the big reveal as an emotional punch to us–the emotional punch is for Çeda. The language is thoughtful and measured. The plot speed is slow, but I count this a strength. Beaulieu does not rush anything here. We learn about the desert’s mythology, Sharakhai’s history, the political machinations and subplots, in such a way that we don’t realize that we are lacking information until we receive it. In some books, the background is never fleshed out–we are given the inked sketch and assume that is all we’ll get. In Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, the color is added over time, creating a complete piece of art.
The desert is a character all its own, here. Beautiful shifting sands, boats and ships and, essentially, surfboards using special wood glide over the sands, making Sharakhai both a city separated from the world by a sea and a city with little access to water and the easy food of a sea-faring city. It’s a brilliant concept, perfectly executed.
If you take the kink and sex out of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, add some gladiator sport, provide an authentic desertscape, and tamp down the poetic language just tad, you’ve got Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. This was, by far, the best “epic fantasy” work I’ve read in years.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu was published by DAW on September 1, 2015.