Twelve Kings in Sharakhai: A promising beginning to a new epic fantasy series

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTwelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu epic fantasy book reviewsTwelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is the first book in a new series by Bradley P. Beaulieu set in the great desert city of Sharakhai, ruled for centuries by the same dozen Kings who long ago made a pact with the gods to fend off the desert tribes and establish their power. As a novel that comes to its own semi-resolution, it’s nicely rewarding in its own self-contained way (if not without some issues), but Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I’d say, works even better as an evocative opening to a world whose full complexity is only just hinted at by the end.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai opens with a bang, presenting our main character Çeda (pronounced Chay-da) in a gladiatorial match in her persona as the White Wolf — a fan favorite in the city’s fighting pits. As character introduction, the scene is extremely effective. After Çeda defeats a much bigger and stronger opponent, one whom she purposely matched herself against, the reader immediately gets that this is a character who doesn’t back down, a resourceful, strong-willed young woman willing to put her sense of justice above her sense of self-preservation: all of which comes into play as the novel progresses.

Çeda is a well-crafted, fully rounded character: good, but not without flaws; a strong fighter, but not always the best in combat; clever, but not always the smartest in the room; likable but not always admirable. Orphaned at nine when her mother died (she has no clue as to who her father is), she was taken in for a while by the apothecary Dardzada, and then from there moved in with another street orphan named Emre, who became her best friend and more. Both Emre and Dardzada are equally sharply, fully drawn characters; in fact, just about everyone we meet is, though sometimes that depth is only slowly revealed through current plot events or via flashbacks (more on those later).

One of the strongest aspects of the characterization comes not with the individual creations but in their interactions, which feel wholly real. Mostly thanks to the fact that the relationships are messy, ragged things, always changing shape, as is often the case in real life. When characters don’t talk to each other, as readers we don’t see it as a cheap means to send the plot in a certain direction (a pet peeve of mine), but as a natural occurrence due to the emotional interplay between two people. Trust is lost, won, lost again. Anger comes and goes. Jealousy, frustration, pettiness, loneliness, desire — all these and more raise their heads thanks to the complicated heart of humanity, not to the author’s spreadsheet detailing which plot points occur when.

Because the characters are so well drawn, Beaulieu is able to take his time with the plot of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, trusting we’ll stick with him thanks to our engagement with Çeda and the others. The core of the story is her desire to destroy the twelve kings, whom she blames for her mother’s death. Her search for vengeance, however, is not served up as the usual simplistic and single-minded character motivation. Instead, it is often a source of inner conflict as it conflicts at times with a yen for a peaceful “normal” life, with her love for and sense of protectiveness over Emre, in addition to coloring and muddying her interaction with just about everyone she comes in contact with.

While for Çeda, revenge against the kings is deeply personal (it isn’t just that they are to blame for her mother’s death; her mother also left behind clues that might lead to a means of bringing the kings down one a time), she is hardly alone in wishing to see the city freed of their ruthless and unchanging rule and these other attempts are just as important to the plot. Several individuals, like Çeda, have their own personal vendettas, while an organized resistance group is willing to use any methods, including dark magic, to take the kings down, and if their attacks cost some innocent lives or result in the same via the kings’ response (they randomly select city dwellers for retaliatory executions — “Harm but one of our daughters, and twenty-and four of thine own shall drown in their wake”), then so be it. Despite their shared goal, Çeda is repulsed by the resistance’s methods, though she finds herself against her will being drawn ever further into their conflict with the kings.

As for the twelve kings themselves, early on they are a thing of mystery, with tantalizing hints here and there of their powers (The King of Whispers is said to hear all, another is in charge of fearsome creatures, another is a great fighter, and so on). Slowly we learn more of them, especially once we enter a POV from one of the kings, and of their elite guardians — the all-female Blade Maidens, and this steady pace of revelation about that deeply secretive world is a nice counterpoint to the vengeance theme.

Stylistically, the novel has a captivatingly fabulistic feel about it. It isn’t just the fantastical creatures, the magic, the relatively unfamiliar desert setting. It’s the importance of stories, the way in which the past is slowly shown to illuminate the present, the recursive nature of the narrative, its non-linearity, and the willingness of Beaulieu not fully explain everything as it is introduced, whether it be a basic abstract mythos or a concrete prop. As one example, the desert people sail the sands in ships. Many, perhaps most fantasy authors, the first time such an action occurred, would have stopped right there and spent a few paragraphs describing the ships and giving us via the narrator or dialogue an explanation of how such ships work (“As you know, Bob…“). You can be forgiven, however, for being well into Twelve Kings in Sharakhai before realizing that these sailing ships aren’t crossing water but dunes, so subtle is their mention.

Now, as mentioned, I did take issue with a few elements in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. As is often a complaint of mine, I’m not sure the novel is fully deserving of its length. Coming in at just under 600 pages, it seemed to me cutting 100-150 of those would have better served the reader, presenting a leaner, tighter narrative and smoothing out some pacing problems here and there. A few times necessary plot events seems to happen a bit too conveniently, such as a particularly fortuitous slant of light, or characters were a little too obtuse. These weren’t patterns, just a few isolated incidents, but still noticeable. My biggest question, though, is with regard to the structure and the interwoven flashbacks, which appeared at times to be both longer and also more complicated in their timing and division than they needed to be. I’m calling this a “question” rather than a “complaint,” however, because I’m still mulling it over, trying to decide if it’s an issue of execution or basic structural design.

In any case, none of my issues with the text would prevent me from happily recommending Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Its characterization, setting, and style easily outweigh concerns with length and (maybe) structure, making it a fine introduction to what promises to be a richly rewarding series.

~Bill Capossere


Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu epic fantasy book reviewsFor the most part, Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a fun and engaging read. Beaulieu crafted a protagonist who was understandable yet mysterious, and it was absurdly simple for me to fall into the trap of loving the characters in this work. Prose-wise, I enjoyed the dialogue and portions of the diction. However, I agree with Bill — the biggest issue with this work is definitely the structure. I think it was a bigger issue for me than for Bill because at times I found myself getting frustrated with what felt like continuous and frequent interruptions with no action in between. So I think the pacing could really use some work. All in all, though, it’s a debut with many strengths, and I can’t wait to read the sequel!

~Kevin Wei


Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu epic fantasy book reviewsI don’t have any disagreements with either Bill or Kevin’s reviews of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, so it seemed best for me to write a few paragraphs about the aspects of the novel that I particularly enjoyed, because I’d like to share them with prospective readers in the hopes of bringing Bradley P. Beaulieu’s talents to their attention.

Çeda’s story and revenge-quest are compelling enough on their own, but by including the perspectives of characters like Emre, Ramahd Amansir, and Ihsan (the Honey-tongued King), Beaulieu shows the reader that there are plots and schemes far beyond what Çeda may personally experience. The troubles in Sharakhai and the resentment of the Kings’ power is far more widespread, and has been felt for longer than Çeda has been alive, and I appreciated the wider view that the reader is given. It goes a long way toward making the city and its citizens feel real, especially when combined with the reliance on books and stories (written and verbal) as Çeda searches for answers about the Kings and her own history.

When creating any fictional world, it seems like authors have a tendency to either bog the narrative down in too many details or gloss over them in order to rush through the plot, but I thought that Beaulieu found a good balance between those two extremes. There were so many neat details like maned wolves, dangerous sirens, and black laughers in the desert; rosewater lemonade and various types of tea; even a teahouse with ceiling fans (powered by unseen mechanisms) to keep its patrons cool. There are mentions of other countries: Mirea, Qaimir, Malasan, and the Hundred Territories of Kundhun, each with distinct cultures and people, with the city of Sharakhai functioning as a trade hub. Beaulieu uses these details to make the world come alive for the reader in efficient, clear language which conveys important information without derailing the narrative.

The structure of the novel was a little too reliant on flashbacks for my taste, but I got the impression that Beaulieu was creating a palimpsest of repeated experiences to show that the past is not so different from the present or future.  It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in upcoming novels, and to see what new adventures lie in store for Çeda.

~Jana Nyman

Publication date: September 1, 2015. 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 ompany 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.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science. You can find him at: www.kevinwei.me

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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13 comments

  1. Ben Gorden /

    I hesitated to pick this up due to the lack of a map. After reading your review, I’m still on the fence. Does it read well without a map, or would have been beneficial to have one?

    • I am reading this one right now and I think it reads well enough without a map. You spend most, if not all, of the book inside Sharakai and you don’t really need to know that the harbor is left to the Through, or such tiny details.

      • I actually meant to mention the lack of a map in the review. I did find it a little annoying. As Joao says, it’s a pretty self-contained setting in terms of actual action, and so no, I’m not sure knowing where the pits are in relation to the harbor is all that important. But I did want a larger sense of the desert, of the tribal areas, of the general social/political geography. Certainly not at all a deal-breaker or close to one, but would it be better to have one? As is almost my answer on these (lack of maps in fantasy novels is a big pet peeve of mine) is yes. I’m hoping book two gets one.

  2. Wow, I can’t wait to read this one! I don’t need a map — I’ll just use the GPS on my phone! That’ll work… right?

  3. We seem to be in agreement on this one (yet again, haha). I wonder if a map will be provided online at some point, as with Alex Marshall’s A Crown for Cold Silver?

    • I love maps, too, and there will be one in Book 2. I’ll post it online when we actually have it. I won’t go into all of the details, but this is something that unfortunately got lost in production, and it was too late for inclusion by the time it was brought up.

      • Now that’s some great (and super speedy) “customer service” from an author. I hereby retract my request to have you come to my house and enact the geography via interpretive dance, Thanks for the heads up Brad–I’ll look for the online version when it pops up. And thanks for the great read!

  4. Hmmm… I was very hesitant trying to figure out if this should be on my to read list earlier this month… I think I’m hooked, against my better judgement which tells me that 300-400 trl items is quite enough for the time being…

  5. You say, “Hi, my name is Kevin and I am a bookaholic,” and then we all say “Hi, Kevin!”

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