Thursday, June 18, 2015

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai - Bradley P. Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is the first novel in a new sequence from Bradley P. Beaulieu. It’s set, unsurprisingly, in the city of Sharakhai, a thriving metropolis, ruled by twelve sorcerer kings, surrounded on all sides by shifting desert sands – and by enemies. The reader follows Çeda, who begins the novel as a gladiator in the fighting pits of Sharakhai, as she explores her future, redefines her past, and sets out to kill the Kings of Sharakhai.

The setting is one of the absolute stars of this text. The city of Sharakhai feels like a living organism in itself. As we follow Çeda and some of the supporting cast around the city, their eyes show us the edifice that surrounds them. It’s dusty, sprawling and bloody; an urban junkyard dog. There are the pit fighters that the protagonist is part of, and their scrapping, often deadly combats. There’s the cloaked menace of the Maidens, the elite bodyguards of the Kings, stalking through the city, using their loyalty and capacity for lethality like a shield. It’s not just that though. There’s the broader conflicts, between the city Kings and the tribes of the desert, a guerrilla campaign, mercilessly waged by two sides that seem to be murdering by reflex. Each drop of blood, each grudge, each crossed sword and crossed word is part of a larger whole, a skein of conflicted loyalties and plots of revenge, wrapped around the entire city like an invisible web. The reader doesn’t see much of most of these, but each character feels like they have a story, even if there isn’t time for it to be told here; the background characters in the setting still feel like people, rather than parts of the scenery. At the same time as all of the blood, conspiracy and vengeance, there are other stories – stories of compassion, of love, of understanding between parties. And there are mysteries, multi-layered in complexity that are both baffling and enticing.

The above may show off some of the complexity of the setting, but it doesn’t truly describe the wonderful and pervasive aesthetic that runs through the narrative. The inevitable comparison is to the Thousand and One Nights – and the mixture of pride and passion, cruelty and faith, mean it isn’t an entirely invalid one. What Beaulieu has done though, is create a setting with the feel of a fable, rather than a fairy tale, a story told over a campfire in shifting sands on a dark night, a place where the fantastical abuts with the normal, where monsters walk the streets with spice peddlers and swordsmen, and blended it all together. It evokes visuals of rooftop chases, swordfights in moonlight, and the romance of the street rat and the princess – and then enfolds them in a universe with consequences, where swords cut, and where the street rat is more likely to rob the princess than romance her.  The text skilfully evokes a sense that all things are possible, and draws the reader into the world that embodies that sense.

Of course, a world isn’t much without the characters to inhabit it. Even if your background characters don’t feel like scenery, you need someone front and centre, to take the reader along with them.  In this case, that someone is Çeda. She begins the novel as an angry, tormented young woman, fighting in the pits of Sharakhai for money , fame, and the chance to test her skill – and running potentially illegal packages for her patron as a side-occupation. Beaulieu gives us a highly competent protagonist, who quickly demonstrates a talent for duplicity as well as for swordplay; but he also manages to make her emotions real. The long-simmering rage she feels over the death of her mother, the quiet, complex affection for Emre, her old friend – both leap off the page,  the raw humanity of the feelings presented washing over the reader.  The same is true of the supporting cast – Emre, for example, gets the occasional chapter of his own, and the narrative voice feels different, but equally genuine. Some of the antagonists are a bit more awkward, feel a little less human, but that may actually be by design. Beaulieu also plays with reader expectations of characters, switching between the present moment, and chapters set at different stages in the past; the reader is shown friends become something less, and something more, over time, shown the impact of past decisions, often chapters before actually showing the reasons for those decisions to the reader. At the same time, the present strand of narrative continually realigns characters views, as they discover that the reasons for events in the past are perhaps not what they remembered. It’s a nice technique, and it means that as the reader is exposed to the characters, the characters are also in flux, being exposed to themselves.  

It’s also nice to see a set of characters that blend well together in a uniquely human way; all the relationships between characters feel  well realised, with emotional and intelligence behind them;  they also feel messy. What in other books might be a hero works with what in other books might be a villain, tied together by family connections and a desire for revenge. There’s Çeda, who is the reverse of a damsel in distress, and the way her relationship with Emre, built on trust and shared pain, stretches, even tears in some places, and builds in others, as truths and actions pour out of the plot. The characters feel like people, and the relationships that they tie between themselves also feel like the ones that people have, rather than being what the narrative requires.

Speaking of the narrative, there’s some good stuff here. It has a tendency to get a bit complicated, to spin off into interesting tangents, to show the complexity of the system, the way which everything ties together. But running through that plot, like a core of molten steel, is Çeda’s quest for vengeance for the death of her mother. It keeps the sprawling story on course, and as focused as Çeda herself. It can be a bit of a slow burner, as the reader is inducted into the world of Sharakhai, but over time, layers upon layers of complexity are added, and these make the emotional payoffs all the more satisfying. I won’t spoil the details of the story, but there’s the occasional bit of explosive magic and the odd spectacular swordfight, too.

In summary, this is the start of a grand fantasy epic; it’s also the start of a personal story, one lined with great characters, in a fully realised, fantastic world. The text seizes both of these things, blends them, and makes  something great – give it a whirl.

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