A Wasteland Of My God’s Own Making is a novella from Bradley P. Beaulieu, set in the same world as his ‘Sharakai’ stories. Regular readers will know that I’ve been a fan of Beaulieu’s for quite some time – and that I think the ‘Sharakai’ sequence is some of the most imaginative contemporary fantasy available. So expectations were set fairly high from the first page of this latest work.
It’s a prequel of sorts, seeming to occur earlier than the first ‘Sharakai’ novel. Its protagonist is Djaga, a pit fighter. Which is to say, she goes out onto the sands in front of a baying crowd, and hurts people for money. Djaga shows an impressive depth of character. Yes, she fights, braking bones and taking money for an audience. But though part of her revels in the attention, though part of her wants to fight, even to kill, and to keep fighting until she can’t fight any longer, that’s not all she is. Not just muscle and reflex, no. On the one hand, Djaga is a creature of regret. A long ago error in judgment festers at the back of her mind, its consequences visible with every red blow she lands in the pit. Djaga fights in part because she enjoys it. In part because she’s good at it. But also in part, I think, to atone, to expiate the past, or at least buy its acceptance for another night or two.
But the other pole for our protagonist is her love. A fierce affection, as much an absolute as the fighting rage. Djaga wants to leave the pits, to become something else, to share a new life with the woman she loves. And each word she speaks is an avatar for that affection, each kinetic ballet in the pits sitting in balance with the warmth and togetherness she feels in the arms of another. Djaga is built to fight, yes, and has a past that wracks her dreams – but she isn’t an avatar of destruction, but a flawed person, making their way in the world with the reader, and with a chance at a love that makes her feel complete. It’s a multi-layered, thoughtful type of affection, a comfortable certainty and fountain of hope in a world which could have spoken about blood upon the sand for a few more pages instead. The story is better for it – for giving us Djaga as a person, one whose needs and wants are complex and contradictory, whose inner life is a whirlwind of crackling thought and deeply felt, honest emotion – even as to the outside world she is a calm avatar of destruction.
What I’m saying is, Djaga is thoroughly human, and manages to balance her need for more connection with her capability to be an incredible badass. She’s a great focal point, and I’d love to see more work focusing on the character. The text is approached from her viewpoint, which serves to keep the narrative tight and focused on the world around Djaga.
And what a world it is. If you’re coming in fresh: Sharakai is a city in the desert, a thriving metropolis, ruled by immortal Kings, whose magic has kept the city alive, and whose jealousy and power keeps them in charge, if less than united. The soaring spires of Sharakai connect to everything outside the desert via ships on the sand – sailing craft driven by the desert winds. And outside the city, rebellion and unsanctioned magic are fermenting into a dizzying, deadly brew. Here though, we, and Djaga, are centred on the fighting pits. On the sand beneath her feet, still slick with blood from that last cut. On the background roar of a crowd which wants blood, and isn’t too particular about how it gets it. On each breath taken under a blazing sun. The pits are the centre of a close-knit world, and there’s a strange intimacy in the struggle, the sweat, the crowd, the blood. It’s mirrored in the digressions into Sharakai, in the gentler moments Djaga tries to share with Nadin. It’s a strange, richly imagined world, but one which feels very real.
I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers. But I’ll say this: It’s got a lot going on. There’s a searing emotional heart, yes. And there’s dark secrets from the past, uncovered. And treachery, and blood, and tears on the sand, and friendship. Love and sorrow. And there’s some absolutely top-notch fight scenes, which will put your heart in your mouth, right before the story breaks it for you. There’s a little bit of everything here, and it’s all put together with the precision of a stiletto to the heart.
This novella serves as an excellent entry point into the wider Sharakai universe. But it also succeeds on its own terms, giving us a well-crafted work of fantasy which will keep you turning the pages until morning. If you’re a long time reader of the series, or a newcomer to the deserts of Sharakai, this is a book you ought to try.