Here we are, the sixth and final book of The Song of the Shattered Sands. A Desert Torn Asunder brings to a close the quest of Çeda to kill the Kings of Sharakhai, perhaps in unexpected ways. But the story has grown grander and more epic in scope since that first book, and there are other players on the field who deserve closure too. Bradley P. Beaulieu manages the not inconsiderable feat of creating a satisfying ending to an epic fantasy series, certainly more satisfying than some I have read over the past few years (Sara Douglass, looking at you). If you want my praise in one blurb, it is this: this book does not rush you towards its conclusion, nor does it grant any character an easy end to their struggle.
Thanks to NetGalley and Gollancz for this free e-ARC.
This review is going to be, in many ways, a review of the series as a whole now that we have closure. That being said, I’m going to keep it spoiler-free for A Desert Torn Asunder, so you should be fine as long as you don’t mind spoilers for the previous 5 books.
Look, I mentioned this in a previous review, and I’m sure I am not the only one to make this comparison, but this series is way better than A Song of Ice and Fire ever was. I’m using George R.R. Martin’s unfinished epic opus as a touchstone because of its cultural relevance—this series could easily be adapted by HBO or any number of competing studios to the same fidelity that they produced Game of Thrones but with the added benefit of, you know, a good ending. Oh, and tons less misogyny and gratuitous nudity and sexual violence! Not only is Beaulieu a better writer but he has delivered in a few years what Martin has failed to do in a couple of decades. Yes, I know that every writer is different, and I’m not here to dismiss any difficulties Martin might have with his writing—I’m just pointing out a simple fact.
I’m looking at this series from the position of someone who has been a fan of epic fantasy for almost her whole life. When I was young, my first genre love was mystery. I went from Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew up to the big leagues of Agatha Christie. Then in grades 6 and 7, I discovered science fiction and fantasy. Dune and LOTR were great, but it was The Belgariad by David (and Leigh) Eddings that truly stoked the fantasy fire in this reader’s heart. I devoured that series and its sequel series, and from there I tore through my library’s epic fantasy books. I remember reading the first three Song of Ice and Fire novels in Grade 7—waaaay too young for that content, oops—and then waiting, patiently, for the next book. Still waiting for book 6 at 31, George….
So, I’ve not just read epic fantasy; I have steeped myself in it. Yet as I grew older and learned more about the world around me, I began to understand how a lot of epic fantasy reflects our problematic worldviews. I saw how it is often mired in European ideas of feudalism and patriarchy and how the few attempts to subvert that are often clumsy or problematic in other senses. So it has been with great excitement that I have watched so many authors, particularly women of colour, reimagine what epic fantasy can be (N.K. Jemisin, I’m looking at you!). Anybody who writes today that epic fantasy is too whitewashed, too Eurocentric, etc., just isn’t paying attention to the brilliant renaissance of fresh voices and worlds being created right now.
Beaulieu’s series is a part of that. What I admire most is the way he marries the old and the new. There are tired tropes in this book: elder gods versus younger gods—including a literal deus ex machina at the end of A Desert Torn Asunder—and enchanted blades and ancient curses, etc. But Beaulieu infuses these ideas with different settings—in the middle of a desert—and diverse characters, most of whom are neither good nor evil but simply fallible humans on power trips. To that last point, I was very impressed with the characterization of Ihsan in this book. We’ve come a long way from the first book, when the Kings seemed like these remote and terrible figures, to now, where they are as beaten and broken as any of the other mortals trapped in this gods-caused struggle.
Indeed, in addition to the overall quality of this series as it pertains to the epic fantasy subgenre, I just want to praise the incredible characterization in this book. So many of the main characters are three-dimensional. I have been angry with pretty much all of them—Çeda included—at one point or another. Meryam’s evolution from possible hero to villain, and the way Beaulieu has unpacked the childhood traumas that her mind has fled into to rationalize her actions, has been so fascinating. I appreciate how, in this final book, each of the remaining main characters receives some kind of resolution to their story. Sometimes it is entirely what you would expect; other times, it’s different because of how their story has changed over these six books.
Do I agree with all of it? No. This series is far from perfect. As I have previously mentioned, I would like to see more explicit LGBTQ+ representation—Çeda’s dalliance with Sumeya is further minimized in this book in a way I didn’t appreciate, and the only other major gay characters I can think of were antagonists. So in that respect Beaulieu could have done better. Similarly, this series suffers from what any epic series does: way too many characters, way too many subplots, and the challenge of bringing it all together at the end. As I have already said, I think Beaulieu succeeds at this challenge. However, there’s definitely elements to A Desert Torn Asunder that feel very narratively convenient. Davud’s entire storyline is one of them, in my opinion, along with the deus ex machina I mentioned above. These are all “your mileage may vary” type things, of course, and someone else might have fewer nitpicks while another reader might think I’m going too easy on the series.
But I’m not here to put any fantasy series on a pedestal. I’m here, rather, for more diverse fantasy in the sense that we are seeing a lot of different and fresh takes on what it means to be “epic.” I have seen so much of that lately; here’s a short list if you want it: The Jasmine Throne, Ashes of the Sun, Blades of the Old Empire, the aforementioned N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I’m sure there are listicles and other recommendations out there if you need more of this in your life—I know I do.