I don’t really understand contemporary authors that latch their new world on to excisting stuff on Earth in an attempt to create a different world. Twelve Kings In Sharakhai is set in a desert city, including niqabs, turbans, face veils, crescent moons, henna tattoos, curved swords, the likes, yet all that just seems token exoticism. It’s not Earth, since the world has two moons and immortal kings, yet it is a lot like Earth, and I never really had the feeling I was reading a story about another world – a bit of a problem for secondary world fantasy.
A good early indication of said problem are spices: authors tend to show the otherness of their new world by piling on the abundance of tastes, smells and colors, preferably on crowded, buzzing markets. It has become such a cliché. And increasingly inefficient, since most of these species have become available in about any mainstream store where I live too. “The bright flavor of cardamom and caramelized onion and lemon zest” features on page 17. Cardamon really is the winner to indicate a Middle-Eastern vibe, and unsurprisingly the first tasty seed mentioned. A few pages further, “already the heavy breeze carried scents of rose and jasmine and sandalwood”. Beaulieu keeps on dropping these sets of three throughout the book: “a lush display of flowering herbs – valeria and veronica and Sweet Anna.” Enumerations like these are one of the hallmarks of supposedly “detailed, rich world building”.
As you might have guessed from the tone of the above, the first book of The Song Of The Shattered Sands series didn’t really do it for me. It’s not a bad book – it’s a lot better than Throne Of The Crescent Moon – but all things considered, it doesn’t get much more than a shrug of my shoulders. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, but I think the book would benefit from these three fixes:
Cut back verbosity. 580 pages is long as it is already, so if time and time again I need to reread whole paragraphs because their point didn’t really come across, that adds to the reading time, and subtracts from enjoyment. Beaulieu’s prose isn’t supple: it’s weighty and bogged me down.
Cut back on the backstory. Yes of course, a character needs to be deep, and nuanced, and grey, but when the flashbacks to the youth of main character and sword badass Çeda don’t advance the overall story, they add to the drag. The first few flashbacks were necessary and interesting, but after a while, they’re just there as filler: they don’t deepen the understanding of Çeda, but just spell out what we already know. On top of that, they make the book’s structure predictable and repetitive.
Cut back on the details. Detailed isn’t better. Detailed doesn’t make more nuanced. I don’t need to know the color of the kaftan of a passer-by on a market, especially if that passer-by doesn’t do anything but passing-by. Why is that character even there? Movies need extras to fill the image and enhance reality. Books need them a whole lot less: our own mind’s eye does the work already.
Aside from these three quick fixes, Beaulieu’s plotting needs fixing too, but that won’t be an as easy deal. The story never becomes more than the gradual discovery of the mythology of the world by the main character. Classic first book syndrome? Probably, but that doesn’t excuse it.
Twelve Kings In Sharakhai‘s basic plot works as follows: Çeda accidentaly discovers something, goes to talk with somebody who might know more, is partially informed, Çeda discovers the next piece of the puzzle, talks to somebody else, is partially informed, discovers next piece, goes talking to that first somebody again, this time gets even more information, discovers next piece, etc. Yes, there’s some action and fighting too, and there are a few chapters that offer a different point-of-view and give the reader a bit of information before Çeda gets it, but they don’t help the plodding, slow-reveal structure.
As I’ve read a lot of positive reviews, I can’t really advice against this book. It’s not bad, and people seem to like it, so you might too. But for me, the book didn’t manage to convey a sense of awe. This is a planned six book series, so things might improve. As it goes for epic fantasy, it’ll probably get bigger, with more grandeur and gods and ever more powerful blood ghouls. That might get us to awe, who knows?
The potential is there: the basic mythology is interesting, and the twelve kings seem like intriguing characters. Sadly, we don’t get a lot of page time with them. What we get is a lot of page time with an 18-year old that basically just has one drive: revenge. Revenge is primitive and one-dimensional, and not even tons of cardamon can mask that.