A fascinating new fantasy series
In the cramped west end of Sharakhai, the Amber Jewel of the Desert, Çeda fights in the pits to scrape a living. She, like so many in the city, pray for the downfall of the cruel, immortal Kings of Sharakhai, but she’s never been able to do anything about it. This all changes when she goes out on the night of Beht Zha’ir, the holy night when all are forbidden from walking the streets. It’s the night that the asirim, the powerful yet wretched creatures that protect the Kings from all who would stand against them, wander the city and take tribute. It is then that one of the asirim, a pitiful creature who wears a golden crown, stops Çeda and whispers long forgotten words into her ear. Çeda has heard those words before, in a book left to her by her mother, and it is through that one peculiar link that she begins to find hidden riddles left by her mother.
As Çeda begins to unlock the mysteries of that fateful night, she realizes that the very origin of the asirim and the dark bargain the Kings made with the gods of the desert to secure them may be the very key she needs to throw off the iron grip the Kings have had over Sharakhai. And yet the Kings are no fools — they’ve ruled the Shangazi for four hundred years for good reason, and they have not been idle. As Çeda digs into their past, and the Kings come closer and closer to unmasking her, Çeda must decide if she’s ready to face them once and for all.
I’m a fan of Beaulieu’s work. I haven’t read as much of it as I would like, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. Twelve Kings is no exception: it offers a big, sprawling new fantasy world and series, populated by interesting and diverse characters — with shades of the horrific to add extra flavour.
Strangely, though, for such a substantial book, I find a shorter review appropriate. There is so much potential for endless discussion and dissection, but I’ve decided to keep this tight and to the point.
I’ve always thought of Beaulieu as a “worldbuilder fantasist” — in his work, the way readers view the world seems to be very important. To that end, and especially in Twelve Kings, the setting is very well-realized on the page. And Sharakhai has a lot to offer — the author does a fantastic job of showing us the different areas in the city, from the inhabitants to the sights and sounds and smells. There are times when it feels like the world-building is taking over just a bit, which had a tendency to slow the story down. Not strictly speaking a bad thing, but it does give the momentum of the plot a slightly uneven quality.
Beaulieu’s gift for characterization is on full display, however, and this makes up for any lulls in the momentum. Çeda and her companions and opponents are pretty much all well-rounded, realistic and engaging characters. Her interactions with others are likewise realistic, feel natural and interesting. She’s a tough character, but never felt like she was just a gender-flipped male warrior. Some of the dream-like sequences weren’t entirely to my taste, but they are important to the story.
As an opening salvo in a new fantasy series, this makes quite the impression. It’s big and detailed, yes, but never feels self-indulgent. If you like substantial, immersive fantasy novels, then Twelve Kings is for you. I’m looking forward to book two.