Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Posted August 30, 2015on:
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu (UK Title is Twelve Kings)
published Sept 1 2015
where I got it: received review copies from the author & publisher
(Hey, did you know I recently interviewed Bradley P. Beaulieu? And that I’m hosting a give away of Twelve Kings of Sharakhai? Click here for more info!)
If you like your fantasies complex and your worldbuilding done right, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is for you. With the sprawl of a doorstopper tome jammed into less than 600 pages, Twelves Kings offers an unexpected epic fantasy with compelling characters who at first blush seem like your standard cookie-cutter characters, but quickly let you know they are nothing of the sort.
Did the cover art get your attention? It sure got mine. This is one of those instances where the cover artist got the details right. That sprawling, overflowing, dusty metropolis with a towering seat of power designed to be intimidating and in your sight at all times? A young armed woman, dressed to blend in? If you like what you see in that cover art, you’re going to like what you find in the pages. Sharakhai is more than just a city, it’s a center of unimaginable power. Once upon a time, the leaders of twelve tribes made an unholy contract with the desert gods, granting themselves immortality and getting an army of undead protectors thrown in for good measure. No longer tribal leaders, but immortal Kings, the Kings rule with an iron first. Their take their blood sacrifices on holy nights, and forbid the populace from questioning anything. That cover art makes me want to cosplay Çeda.
Something that really drew me into Twelve Kings was the scale of the potential. Let me unpack that a little. Our story most certainly revolves around Çeda, but there is so much more happening around her that she’s not even aware of. Emre has a whole independent life away from her (and why shouldn’t he?), her mother practically erased their past, there are international politics that may or may not have anything to do with Çeda. The story is about her, but this world that Beaulieu has created is so much larger than just one young woman’s story.
And let’s talk about her story, a bit, shall we? At a very young age, Çeda learned to keep her mouth shut about what her mother did. She knew to tell no one about the Adichara petal harvests, never to breathe a word about how her mother put the petals under her tongue on sacred nights. Even speaking of the flowers could be a death sentence. It was rumored the King of Whispers heard all, and when her mother was killed for her transgressions, Çeda tried to start a new life. In Sharakhai, silence can often be your only weapon. Çeda’s mother knew that better than most.
Now an adult, Çeda makes her living in the fighting pits, and runs packages on the side. It makes her just enough money that she doesn’t have to live with her guardian anymore. All she has of her childhood is a book of her mothers, and memories. What was so damn important about that book? What secrets did her mother die with? Are they worth discovering? When you live under the rule of immortal leaders who kill on a whim, is any risk worth taking?
Caught outside on a holy night, and face to face with a demonic looking Asirim, Çeda takes the first confusing step toward understanding the secrets of not only the immortal Kings, but of her own heritage. I’ll admit, as soon as I saw the phrase “hidden riddles” in the book description, I was intrigued. Some of my favorite scenes in the book involved Çeda and other characters working things through, trying to figure out how things were connected, acting on their guesses. As the reader, I got to do plenty of that myself, because Beaulieu is balancing a handful of plot lines here, many of which don’t connect until the very end. Riddles and hints that are hidden in poems and songs, secret nicknames, cultures that have been erased, secretive tribes. Çeda’s mother knew even more of the truth, and it got her killed.
The plot is compelling and kept my attention through out, but it was the details that I enjoyed most. At first, I felt a little overwhelmed by how much detail was included. Do I really need to know what people are eating and what they are wearing? As I read further, my appreciation of the inclusion of so much detail skyrocketed. There is an entire conversation in here about a particular style of clothing that is designed to keep dust and sand out of your hair and face (and out of your house!), and how culture and available technology can (and should!) affect what people eat and drink. Details done right equal depth of world, and Beaulieu did it right. In a way, I was reminded of a manga series I’ve been reading recently – A Bride’s Story, by Kaoru Mori. That story takes place in Central Asia, and follows a woman who was raised in a nomadic lifestyle and is trying to get used to living in a permanent village. Mori takes every opportunity to show us in glorious and incredible detail the different styles of embroidery of the different families, and food is a big part as well. The characters don’t have to explain what they are wearing or what they are eating, because it’s second nature. I felt something similar in Twelve Kings of Sharakhai. If I woke up in this world one day, I’d be able to tell someone’s status (and possibly occupation and originating tribe) by their clothing, and ordering food at a stall would be second nature.
Beaulieu employs a system of interspersing the plot with flashbacks from Çeda’s youth. In some she’s with her late mother, in others she’s living with her new guardian, in yet others she’s a street rat running with a pack of street rat friends. Two little harmless spoilers: the flashbacks aren’t told in any kind of obviously discernible order, and the order they are told in is important. You’re going to wonder why Çeda and her guardian argue all the time, and why he treats her the way he does. You’re going to wonder why at her and Emre’s strained relationship. You’ll find out the answers to both of those questions, but only after you see how it’s shaped Çeda’s life. We all know the flashback thing doesn’t always work. The way Beaulieu does it? This is how to do flashbacks so they add to a story instead of distract from it. The flashbacks are like details in a painting. If you’re looking at the painting, those little details are probably the last thing you see, but without them, the big picture wouldn’t have any context.
The plot builds towards the exposure of a secret that could tear a culture apart. What will Çeda do with the information she has? I worry she will get to the point that the risk outweighs the outcome. Luckily, we won’t have to wait too long to find out, as the sequel is already in the works.
The few weaknesses I found in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai I think are user error. At first, I had a tough time getting into the story, I think this is just heavier and deeper worldbuiling than I’m used to. We also get some chapters that are from the points of view of some of the Kings, and with twelve of them (each having a different epithet and different responsibilities), I had a tough time keeping them all straight. But in the end, I did get very invested in the story.