BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Çeda, street-rat in the west-end slums of the great desert trading city of Sharakhai, forges her heritage, purpose, and destiny with blood, blade and daring.
PROS: Strong heroine; excellent flashback narrative framework keeps the reader reevaluating and reconsidering events and character actions, gorgeous cover; sumptuous setting, worldbuilding, and magic.
CONS: A map of the city and world would be most welcome; not an epic fantasy for those new to the form.
BOTTOM LINE: A successful and exciting change in venue, scenery and character from a burgeoning epic fantasy author.
All desert roads may lead to the amber city of Sharakhai, but narratively, all roads lead to the primary viewpoint of Çeda. She’s a competent woman driven by her own history to pursue her goal of toppling the nearly omnipotent kings of Sharakhai, at any cost. Her mother was lost to their machinations long ago and Twelve Kings is the story of how that loss shaped Çeda. The author interweaves the backstory of Çeda into the narrative, giving us perspective on her life just before, and following, the loss of her mother. Not only does this second narrative help explain Çeda’s drive to topple the Kings, it works as counterpoint to the main narrative. Again and again, characters react to those long ago events, but are only shaped by their perception of them, which is often at odds with what really took place.
The worldbuilding is complicated, rich, and endlessly fascinating. This is fantasy that goes far beyond the Great Wall of European Medieval fantasy, to a secondary world which takes its cues from the trading cities of the Taklamakan Desert, the deserts of Middle East, and places in between. The city is a wonder of a trading capital, a rich tapestry of people and their stories. I felt like I trod the dusty streets beneath the watch of the Kings as I followed Çeda’s journey, and the gods, monsters, and magic in this world are all fresh, original and wonderfully detailed. From the ebony blades of the Blade Maidens to the dangerous rush of power from the forbidden adichara petals, the powers beyond the forces of steel and fist depicted in this world are chaotic, wild, and entrancing.
I felt that Beaulieu’s Lays of Anuskaya trilogy was a worthy opening series of novels. Like that series, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is an epic fantasy for readers of epic fantasy. Unlike his previous trilogy, however, Beaulieu does a much better job in hooking characters into the action and narrative early and effectively, demanding the immediate attention of the reader. Like the Anuksaya novels, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai IS such a slow burn of a story that, when it explodes, it does so like a sand-ship out of control before a haboob. The details of the world and the unfolding of the layers of Çeda’s story were lush and easily kept my interest.
Readers who are new to the form and tropes of the subgenre would be ill-advised to start with Brad’s work, as the intense, rich worldbuilding and complexity of what is presented is catnip to readers familiar with the form, such as myself, but may overwhelm readers unused to the conventions and structure of this type of epic fantasy. The author has targeted his writing for deep epic fantasy readers and the novel offers many rich rewards.