Of Sand and Malice Made is a prequel of sorts to Bradley Beaulieu’s excellent “Twelve Kings”, which I spoke about last year. This is a shorter prequel text, composed of three linked novella, but set in the same world, and dealing with many of the same characters – including Ceda, the feisty, wrathful, driven and thoughtful protagonist of Twelve Kings.
Here, we can see a younger Ceda. She’s still splitting her time between making a living in fighting pits, and working for a local crime syndicate, but there’s a little more naiveté here, perhaps more mercy, and a kind of gentleness. She’s willing to sacrifice a great deal to achieve her aims, and that may even include herself – but there’s an unwillingness to see others hurt, a less calloused interior life available to the reader. I you’re coming to Ceda for the first time, I suspect she’ll come off as a bit brusque, but sharply intelligent and ferociously loyal.
She’s also keenly self aware, exploring and examining her feelings and intensions – not forensically, coldly, but organically, with a weight of emotion lurking behind her self-exploration. She’s prepared to be violent, and often forced to be so – and sometimes, the seething anger between the words breaks loose, and she is even glad to be so. Ceda is, even here, somewhat isolated, cautious, but filled with a roiling bucket of emotion, a mixture of loneliness, rage, ties to her friends, and a desire for those friends, for affection and companionship. In short, she’s a rather complex, difficult person – but marvellously plausible, and, in her complexity and humanity, a thoroughly enjoyable protagonist to follow.
She’s backed up by some returning characters from Twelve Kings. I won’t give any spoilers, but would say that they serve as interesting bulwarks of support, letting us see both a little of themselves, and a little of Ceda in the way each relates to her. The villain though, is something else. Implacable, and thoroughly, intentionally inhuman. A creature of cold, and of warped purpose, acting in the way it is made – causing torment, with a bubbling malevolence, and a casual arrogance, a sense of age and ownership which seeps off the page. Beaulieu has created a monster here, something that approximates and imitates humanity, but fits into athe disturbing uncanny valley, and simply feels wrong – whilst also itself being plausible, a thing with thoughts and desires of its own, and an agenda – that it has for sure.
The world – well, it’s largely the city of Sharakai, and points beyond. This is a city with a flavour of heat, sand whirling in the distance, a heat-haze sliding slowly into view. It’s a metropolis, urban, bursting with people between bowed trees under a harsh sun, and a harsher rule. But there’s magic here too, sparkling in the oasis of Sharakhai, Oaths of power, and curses read yo to warp the minds of men, or to rot the flesh off their bones. Between the sandy, grit-blown city streets sits the fantastic, at the liminal edge of our understanding – and that of the characters. The magic is deep, and often deadly, but it’s a fact of life in the city, and in the dark hollows of the desert sands outside of it.
There’s some time spent in the desert too, and the sense of quiet desolation is palpable. This is a world of boundaries, the spaces between, which cross those boundaries – and the people that populate those spaces. It’s a paradox, a barren land swarming vividly with life – and entirely believable because of it.
The plot – well, I won’t give spoilers. Each of the novella can be read independently, but they link together chronologically into a coherent story. There’s great pacing here – I picked up the book and found myself unable to put it down. Ceda is always mivung quickly, working against time to try and fulfil her goals – or at least frustrate others. At heart, this is a story about a relationship, but that relationship is surrounded by broken temples to mysterious gods, by sword fights with magical monstrosities, by slow, creeping evil, and sparks of a thoroughly human heroism. In any event, it’s great stuff – highly entertaining, with compelling characters in an intriguing world. Pick up a copy – you won’t regret it.