In 2015, Bradley P. Beaulieu wowed us with Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, the first volume of an expansive fantasy epic set in an immersive desert landscape. This week sees the arrival of the sequel, With Blood Upon the Sand, and below, the author tells us how he found inspiration for his worldbuilding in an incongruous place: modern social media.
While attending the GenCon a few years back, I was sitting on a panel with Scott Lynch, a writer I’ve really come to admire. He was talking about how a few different series from Lois McMaster Bujold and Steven Brust took a different approach to breaking down longer series. Rather than chop up a story chronologically, a la The Lord of the Rings, Bujold and Brust took more thematic approaches to the books in their series. Yes, there were larger, contiguous stories being told, but in addition to that, each book was looking at the story from a different perspective and/or mindset from the last. Scott said he’d adopted that same approach for his Gentlemen Bastards series (a series I highly recommend, by the way). In the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, for example, we see a major heist, a la Oceans Eleven; in the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, it’s piracy on the high seas; the third book, The Republic of Thieves, is about cheating in politics; and so on.
That approach really spoke to me, and luckily it came as I was still writing Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, the first book in The Song of the Shattered Sands. I immediately began working out the different angles I would use in each of the six books in my series. In Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I’m trying to show the heart of the city of Sharakhai, what it’s like for those who grew up living on the streets and why someone like our heroine, Çeda, would want to bring the Kings down.
In the second book, With Blood Upon the Sand, we see more about the Kings and the Blade Maidens who protect them and what life is like for those who hold the most power in the desert. In the third book, A Veil of Spears, we head deep into the desert and learn more about the desert tribes who gave birth to Sharakhai. And more beyond…
I’ve been a fan of Pinterest for a while now. I use it early on in new projects to collect images that inspire me. Here, for example, is the board I created for Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. I end up adding and referring to the board quite often during the brainstorming, plotting, drafting, and revising of each book as I write them, but it also comes in very handy to try to accentuate some of these differences in “viewpoint” for each book.
In order to share some of the flavor of the books, I thought it might be fun to share some examples to illustrate how the process of collecting images for the series has influenced the creative process for each book. Each graphic below will have three images. The leftmost will correspond with the first book in the series, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, and the “view from the streets.” The middle image will correspond with the second book in the series, With Blood Upon the Sand, and the “view from the palaces.” And the right image will correspond with the third book in the series, A Veil of Spears, and the “view from the desert.”
Here for example, are three women. In the city, people would dress in a more relaxed manner. But in the palaces of the king of Sharakhai and the affluent holdings in the eastern section of the city, things would be much more formal. The nobility have extreme wealth compared to the vast majority of Sharakhai’s populace, and it shows. And in the desert, clothing would be much more utilitarian. (How intense is the woman on the right, by the way? Those eyes dig deep!)
The men are no different. I can just imagine the pelt merchant on the left in the bazaar, hawking all manner of wares that have come from the desert and well beyond. (Dude’s got swag, doesn’t he?) The lords of Sharakhai and the kings themselves would be dressed richly, of course, and while fashion in the palaces wouldn’t change as often as it does in the city, it would certainly change more than the desert. And the men of the desert tribes would again be simpler, but each of the twelve tribes would have its own unique identity, from the colors of their clothes to their jewelry to the tattoos on their faces and hands.
Speaking of jewelry, artistic expression—from jewelry to pottery to carpet weaving and more—would range from the more relaxed and eclectic in the city to ostentatious in the palaces to traditional in the desert.
I like this set of wider views for the constant reminder of how daily life would be different in the three environments. Sharakhai, though a desert city, is metropolitan, a hub of trade and commerce and language and food and so much more. The city itself is densely populated in most areas, creating the sort of depth and mystery and variation I wanted. The kings’ palaces, on the other hand, are each unique, showing their immortal king’s personal tastes as well as giving hint to the desert tribe he hailed from. The tribes, meanwhile, would lead a harsh life in the desert, but also one that is constantly changing as they sail across the desert, sometimes gathering with other tribes on holy days.
Food plays a major role in my life, and I like bringing that out in my fiction. The spice market of Sharakhai is famed all across the known world for its sheer variety. Traders come from far and wide to trade and barter for spices and ingredients that will fetch a profit back home. The food of the city is much richer for the presence of the market, but also from the wealth of influences that come to the city to trade. New recipes are brought by incoming caravans. The best of them sweep across the city. Some even become favored in the palaces of the kings and the manors of Goldenhill. In the desert, food is simpler, but no less care is given to its preparation, because the gathering of ingredients and the preparation and sharing of meals are often the center of the tribes’ existence.
Lastly, where would an epic fantasy be without war? War has long been brewing in the desert. There are freedom fighters in the city who hope to bring down the cruel reign of the kings, which has lasted for over four hundred years. But the kings have not ruled for so long without wielding considerable power, sometimes to devastating effect. They have women warriors, the terrifying Blade Maidens. They have the well-trained and well-armed soldiers of the Silver Spears. And they have the asirim, holy warriors given power by the gods themselves. In the desert, the tribes are not yet unified, fearing the kings’s terrible might, but if the kings’ waning power continues to erode, they may, and then who knows what will become of the desert’s Amber Jewel?
Gathering imagery like this is great for inspiration, but it also keeps me honest. It’s easy to lose track of the aesthetics of a novel, especially over the course of six books, but by using something like Pinterest to keep the images in one place, they act as a touchstone, a constantly growing reference I can refer to as the story grows and complicates.
It also helps to keep me honest in terms of the cultural references I’m working with. Though Sharakhai is set in a fantasy world and there are no direct parallels to our own modern religions, I do nevertheless want to make sure I’m telling a story that feels true, and part of doing that is to make sure I’m treating the various cultures I’m portraying with respect.