Book Review: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai
Believe it or not, I almost walked past this one. While I do keep up with my favorite authors and read recommendations, I find a lot of new books/authors simply by skimming the SF/F section at my local Barnes & Noble. They had Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but the title didn't grab me. I bought other books, I left. This happened two or three times before I finally picked up the book, read the blurb and decided to give it a whirl.
Boy, I'm glad I did.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai follows Ceda (pronounced CHAY-dah), a young woman who fights in the gladiator pits of Sharakhai. The city, ruled by the eponymous twelve deathless kings, finds itself caught between the kings and their ongoing war with the Moonless Host, a rebellion by the desert tribes. Ceda's mother was part of that war, and after an encounter on one of Sharakhai's holy nights, Ceda's investigations into her mother's actions draw her into said war as she seeks to bring down the kings.
That's an oversimplification - to say the plot is complex would be a vast understatement. But Beaulieu weaves it with a deft hand, alternating back and forth between Ceda in the present as she learns her heritage and gets caught up in schemes, and Ceda in the past with her mother, Ahya. Those past sequences give us much-needed insight into Ceda's mother, without which the reader cannot possibly understand Ceda.
Ceda herself is a delight to read. She's a fighter with a temper, conflicted by the love and anger she feels toward her mother, torn by her desire to rid Sharakhai of its kings but unwilling to sanction the methods of the Moonless Host. More than that, she has agency and control over her actions. She regularly defies other characters in the novel to strike out on the course she feels is best. It makes her highly compelling and likeable, even in her angry moments, and her character could carry the novel alone.
Fortunately, she doesn't have to. There's a plethora of excellent supporting cast, from her friend/former lover Emre to Ramahd, the vengeance-seeking ambassador of a neighboring nation, to Zaide, the matron who takes Ceda under her wing. The book successfully sets up backstories and motivations for most of these characters, and the result is an eminently believable and empathetic cast. Even the kings get characterization beyond being the "bad guys" - I liked Yusam, in particular, due to his struggles interpreting the future.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Beaulieu has dropped this stellar cast into a world that feels as real as ours. Borrowing liberally from Middle Eastern cultures, Beaulieu's Shangazi desert hums with life. Like all good worldbuilding, each piece influences the next and there's a rhyme and reason why things are the way they are. This becomes more and more apparent as the book goes on and Ceda investigates what happened on the night the gods granted the kings their powers. I've said many times in the past that I love good worldbuilding, and this book hit me like a sucker punch and left me breathless.
It's also paced exceedingly well, building up to such a powerful climax that I almost didn't realize there was a sequel - it works that well as a standalone novel. If it has a flaw, it lies in its complexity and predictability, but that's hardly something to complain about when it's firing on all cylinders elsewhere.
All in all, this book was a delight to read. Beaulieu's really created something special here, and I'm pumped to see where he takes it in the sequel, With Blood Upon the Sand.