If you like fantasy novels full of deep, resonant world-building, do I have a treat for you.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is the sweeping tale of Çeda, who, with her childhood friend Emre, has lived on the streets of the fabled desert city of Sharakhai since running away from her benefactor, the apothecary Dardzada, at age twelve. She had been living with Dardzada, ever since her mother, Ahya, had been brutalized and hanged from the walls of Tauriyat, the Kings’ compound, as a traitor when Çeda was eight. But Çeda is no ordinary “gutter wren”; now nineteen, she has anonymously made a name for herself in the fighting pits as the mysterious “White Wolf”, who, although smaller than many of her adversaries, has not known defeat in the six years since she first entered the ring.
But Çeda lives with many secrets. On the day before she died, Ahya took Çeda to visit the desert witch, Saliah, after first feeding her daughter the forbidden petals of the adichara tree. While Ahya and Saliah talk furtively inside, Çeda, who had been banished to the garden, climbs an ancient acacia tree, where she experiences a confusing vision.
She was standing before a King. Or she thought he was a King. He had piercing eyes, wore a golden crown and fine raiment, and he stood in a hall of endless opulence. The King’s dark eyes were intent, almost proud. He held a shamshir made of ebon steel in one hand, with a mark etched into the blade near the cross guard. The mark was a circular design of reeds at the edge of a river. She could almost see the herons wading through it, hunting for scarletgills. The strangest thing about the vision was not the King, nor the sword, nor even the fact of her in audience with one of the twelve immortal rulers of Sharakhai. It was that the King was holding the sword out for her to take.
Upon hearing of this vision, Saliah abruptly turns Çeda and her mother away, and they return to the city where Ahya leaves young Çeda with the gruff Dardzada, calling upon him as “blood of her blood”. By the next morning, Çeda is alone, left with nothing of her mother except for a silver locket and a cherished book of poems. She also carries with her a hatred of the Twelve Kings who took her mother’s life, and of all who protect the Kings, especially the royal female warriors who wield the fabled ebon swords – the Blade Maidens.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg in Çeda’s story, as we follow her progress in unraveling – and unearthing – the ever widening mysteries of her background, and the effects of the political turmoil of Sharakhai and the four countries that surround it as they touch Çeda’s life and the lives of those few that she loves. The story draws you in seamlessly, but then keeps unfolding layer by layer, thankfully not by employing “gotchas” as much as building multi-faceted characters and utilizing those many facets to create conflict and collaboration within each individual as well as in the environment surrounding that individual. None of the major characters are of a single note; each has factors both to admire and to cringe away from, hero and villain alike. This book is a veritable symphony of players.
And yet, while I enjoyed this range of characters, what really impressed me was how deeply the lore of the land affected not only their actions, but also their thought processes, their spiritualities, their expectations, their fears and their dreams. Rarely do you read a story where a culture is so carefully developed on so many different, well integrated levels.
Author Beaulieu wisely limits this expansive world-building to one central location: the city-state of Sharakhai. It has an inventive and cohesive history, both of legend and of politics. It has a diverse population, with well defined neighborhoods containing an interesting cross-hatching of refugees, opportunists and helpmeets. The narrative remains sharply focused on Sharakhai, concentrating on depth rather than breadth in the storyline. We hear of the other countries surrounding Sharakhai, we see their travelers on Sharakhai shores, we see their influence in Sharakhai politics, we feel the tensions, the prejudices and the fascinations of and due to these outside influences, but still from the solid viewpoint of Sharakhai. From its desert-as-ocean to its terrifying, soul-sucking zombies-harnessed-as-religious-mongrels (the asirim) to its hallucinogenic flower petals, the city of Sharakhai is as much a character as Çeda. Or rather, Ceda would not be nearly as interesting of a character if she did not have as diverse and deep of a landscape to inhabit.
Admittedly, there are times that Mr. Beaulieu micro-manages the action a bit too heavy-handedly; every once in a while I felt like I was reading a director’s take of the story rather than being able to use my own imagination to realize, for example, the interplay between Çeda and Emre. And occasionally the descriptions of the mystical gets inordinately flowery, and the skills of some of the characters manifest themselves quite conveniently . But if these are the price for such a grand, diverse and deep story, then I’ll gladly pay it.
And seeing that this is the first in a series of books set in Sharakhai, hopefully with Çeda as the central character, I’ll be looking forward to jumping right back into the fray with both feet when the next one debuts.
~ Sharon Browning