Welcome to Sharakhai, a shining city, an oasis in the middle of a desert, made wealthy through its control of vital resources in a harsh landscape. Founded by the members of nomadic desert tribes finally ready to put down roots, Sharakhai has been ruled for over 400 years by twelve kings, granted power and immortality by the gods.
Çeda is not so lucky as that, though she is a crowd favorite in city’s fighting arenas. She is also a woman bent on revenge for the Kings’ execution of her mother under mysterious circumstances when Çeda was a girl. Time has done nothing to cool her burning rage, and she has been waiting long years for her opportunity to strike. But even as she stumbles across strange happenings in Sharakhai that may clear her path to vengeance, she falls deeper and deeper into its politics and conspiracies, encountering dark, unimaginable secrets—secrets that could potentially unravel life as the city knows it…
Bradley P. Beaulieu’s debut trilogy, The Lays of Anuskaya, displayed his aptitude for evocative world-building, and Twelve Kings in Sharakhai throws us headlong into his new world right on page one. If you’re not the type of reader who revels in 100 pages of exposition and description, never fear: he thrusts us into the action without preamble, and trusts we’ll be able to follow him, allowing us to piece together the rules of the universe based on implication, off-hand references, and the occasional flashback. The result is an instant connection to the characters and the plot, and as a whole, the book is surprisingly snappy for a 600-pager that carries the burden of setting up a series.
Sharakhai is a great example of the kind of gorgeous worlds that can be created when epic fantasy breaks free of the familiar medieval European sword-and-sorcery setting and looks elsewhere for an origin story. Beaulieu creates a sort of Arabian-Silk Road mashup—a lush, gorgeous, caravans-and-desert-oases setting with a fantastical twist. It is a world of strong spices and busy markets, where the desert winds whisper through the streets and the deadly sands are always waiting, where arcane technology has swapped camels and horses for sand-skimming boats.
This story escapes traditional gender politics as well. Çeda is strong, flawed, independent protagonist; in one of her early scenes, she’s allowed to have enjoyable, non-monogamous sex with a man of questionable character, who she flat out refuses to marry. (And with nary a suggestion we’re supposed to judge her for it.) She earns her living in the fighting pits, a typically masculine role, and I can safely say that I have never, in all my years of epic fantasy reading, witnessed a novel with so many combat scenes from a woman’s first-person, participatory perspective. Whatever the fight-scene equivalent of the Bechdel Test is, Beaulieu passes it with flying colors. It isn’t just Çeda either—the book is heavy on female power in general. Just wait until you meet the Blade Maidens—elite, sword-wielding “princesses” who have never heard that word—or the vengeful, darkly magical Meryam, who…well, I would do my best to avoid meeting her in a dark alley. Or on a bright street on a sunny Sunday morning.
Beaulieu also makes thoughtful use of the supernatural. Sharakhai is affected by the demonstrable presence of magic on a regular basis, mostly via the asirim, a ghoul-like population of the dead that visits the city every six weeks to reap the souls of the living (with the blessing of the Twelve Kings, who convince the population it is an honor to be chosen for their ranks). The gruesome culling is a result of a deal with the gods, who directly intervene in the city’s affairs, raising another question that adds depth to the narrative: what if it were proven that the gods really do exist, and they are imperfect, selfish, proud, tricksy, and self-involved? What happens to your religion? What changes will ripple through your society? It’s a fascinating scenario that seems likely to be of chief importance in future volumes.
Nor does the book ignore the shifting political situation in this isolated city. Along with the usual courtly intrigue, Beaulieu also forefronts a consideration of the endless ways people in power must constantly defend it—however strong a face you present to the world, it’s always precarious for those at the tippy-top of the pyramid. Çeda’s quest hinges on the slow discovery of the way that myth, legend, and true history have been created and manipulated by the powerful and, in a genre where might (whether physical or magical) often makes right, she finds the means to undermine that power at its source: the stories that we tell each other about why things are the way they are, how the strong rationalize the abuse of the weak, and who has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. It gives Çeda’s quest for personal revenge an immediate contemporary relevance, at a time when our own world is increasingly tearing down its own well-established narratives about the way things are “supposed” to work.
By the end, despite everything that’s happened, it’s clear Çeda still has a long way to go. As do we all.