Twelve Kings by Bradley Beaulieu
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings—cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens, and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.
Within a handful of pages, and a violently efficient pit fight, I was convinced Twelve Kings and I were going to get along famously. I’m glad to confirm that this initial assessment was one hundred percent correct. Putting it simply, Bradley Beaulieu’s latest is enormously entertaining fiction.
The people who find themselves in vast desert city of Sharakhai live and die by the whim of the Twelve Kings. The enigmatic monarchs control everything and, by extension, everyone. Left largely alone through unfortunate circumstance, Çeda has learned how to fend for herself. She has developed a tough, sometimes snarky, persona that has helped her survive against the odds. Her only real friend is Emre. Together they grow up on the streets of the city, doing whatever they can to make ends meet.
Çeda is a fascinating character. Fuelled by revenge, she has a laser like focus. The Kings made a mistake and took something very dear to her and Çeda has decided that they will pay. Every action she takes is calculated and measured. She’ll do whatever she needs to in order to take herself one step closer to her goal. These things are never simple however, and watching how Çeda is forced to compromise her ideals is mesmerizing stuff.
Emre has his own path to follow, though his journey mirrors that of his friend. While Çeda is learning about the Kings and the intricate structure of the royal families, Emre is discovering the dark underbelly of Sharakhai. He is becoming embroiled with the Moonless Host, a criminal fraternity who are viewed by many as nothing short of terrorists.
There is little doubt that Çeda and her relationship with Emre is what lies at the heart of this novel. There are a series of flashbacks that highlight key moments in Çeda’s life and almost all of them involve Emre in one way or another. The two young people are more than friends, they are family. Any action that effects one effects the other. The deep bond that exists between them is very well executed.
What of the Twelve Kings themselves? Well though they are largely absent from the beginning of the book, but their presence is always felt. You get a real sense that they are responsible for everything going on in the city. They are always there, lurking in the background. The more you learn of this enigmatic dozen the more you get the distinct impression that there are plots within plots. High level Machiavellian power plays are afoot. Explicit details aren’t revealed immediately however, hell where would be the fun in that. This is a big old doorstop of a novel. There is plenty of time for the author to be drip feed the delicate intricacies of the Twelve Kings and their politics. Of the twelve I think Husamettin, the King of Blades, was my personal favourite. Though he only appears briefly, he leaves his mark.
Sharakhai is brought to life in truly evocative fashion. From the violence of the gladiatorial arena to the sleazy underworld of the docks, from the grand bazaars and markets to the opulent royal palaces. The city feels vibrant and alive. I relish epic fantasy like this. You can tell when an author has taken that extra time to consider all aspects of the society that they have created. Even the smallest detail has been thought about. Books like this feel like an entirely immersive experience. You can almost reach out and touch the scenery, smell the spices and wilt under the unforgiving heat. I love it.
Twelve Kings blends together action and adventure with political intrigue to create a wonderfully engrossing hybrid. Well rounded characterisation and an enthralling plot are elevated further by some truly effective world-building. Fans of epic fantasy are going to get a real kick out of this.
A final word of advice. If technology allows, I suggest going for the eBook version. As I mentioned before, the physical book is a huge monolithic thing. I enjoy going to the gym but I don’t need to be doing extra exercise when I am trying to read 🙂 If the first instalment of this series is anything to go by then this series promises to be something rather wonderful. If you enjoy your epic fantasy with a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour, then this is the book for you.
Twelve Kings, the first book in The Songs of Shattered Sands cycle, is published by Gollancz and is available now. Highly recommended.