A Veil of Spears is the third in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s “The Song of the Shattered Sands” sequence. I’ve enjoyed the first two, with their nuanced, complex, bloody take on a more Arabian-styled fantasy. This latest addition is an absolute stormer, upending the setting, revealing secrets, and, if possible, raising the stakes even further.
It strikes me that this is, at its core, a book about identity. About the history of individuals and peoples, and about the way that history blends with myth and legend to create culture. That is, in the end, what Sharakhai is – a culture, built on a myth, the myth that is semi-divine Kings deserve to rule, that they carry a divine blessing, that what exists now is the way things have always been. That the Kings are inevitable, immutable, natural forces It turns out that this is, to say the least, not entirely true. The world of Sharakhai has been rocked at its foundations, and people within and without the city are questioning who they are. This happen at several levels; there’s the grand sweep, where the mysterious Thirteenth tribe, survivors of a historical massacre, thrown to the winds, have begun to come back together, to redefine themselves as a people in the desert, against not only the hostile Kings, but the remaining desert tribes, who aren’t entirely sure whether a new player is a good idea. There’s the more intimate though, as Çeda, our protagonist for the last few books, finds herself at the heart of this new tribe – looking at a wider family, a kin that she’s never known growing up almost alone.
This matter of identity reaches further, too. Whilst the struggles of the Kings and the Tribes of Sharakhai are at the core of the text, they’re both part of one cultural tradition. That tradition may have been controlled by the narrative of the semi-immortal Kings, but it serves as much to unite as to divide, But there are other forces on the march now, other kingdoms eyeing the struggles in Sharakhai with interest. They’re perfectly happy to take over Sharakhai and its valuable trade route, and have, it seems, relatively little interest in the cultural struggles of those they’d have to step over to seize it. There are tremors here suggesting that we’re about to open the story out onto a wider canvas.
In the meantime however, there’s the political manoeuvrings of the Kings of Sharakhai to look into, as these monstrously powerful individuals fight not only the tribal forces gathering against their rule, but also with each other. This book gives us more insight into the personalities and goals of the remaining Kings, leaving them less ciphers than men – albeit ones cloaked in supernatural power. This revelation to the reader maps well with the same discovery by Çeda and her allies – that the Kings are mortal, can be hurt, can die. We also get a bit more insight into the life of the desert tribes outside of Sharakhai, where family and blood are everything, where life in the desert often sits on the edge of a knife. They’re a tough bunch for the Kings to bring to heel, but they’re just going to roll over for Çeda and the gang either. Exploring the society of the tribes takes us out into the deep desert, away from the confines of Sharakhai – the geography broadening alongside the scope of the story. It paints a vivid picture that lets you feel the heat of the sun on your face, or the desert winds, the cool dark of the nights around a campfire, the shriek of a supernatural creature coming to rip your head off. The desert is as alive as the city, if differently – and this new facet of the world is as perfectly realised as the others. Sharakhai lives, the desert breathes.
The plot comes at the reader from multiple angles. Though we tend to be focused on Çeda, there are other viewpoints – Kings, outright outsiders, and those further down the social chain. Each of their stories interweaves with the others, and each has something to contribute to the larger tapestry. I won’t go into details on what that wider picture looks like, but will say this: there are some beautiful, intimate moments of precision character work here, payoffs of arcs constructed over the course of the preceding texts; there’s discoveries that will change how the characters and the reader view the past couple of books, too. And there’s some buccaneering, fast-paced, brutal, bloody action, too. There’s clashes of armies, betrayals, revolutions in the making. This is a book with real heart, and a real emotional heft.
If you’ve been wondering whether to pick up the next book in the series: yes, yes, this is a good book, you should read it. If you’re wondering whether to start the series: Yes, that too. Go, read them all. This is great stuff.